How the Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Industry Advances Food Safety for Consumers
Food safety – a global concern
Access to safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health. Around the world, an estimated 1 in 10 people fall ill after eating contaminated food each year. In the United States, the CDC estimates that roughly 1 in 6 Americans get sick from foodborne diseases each year.
These are sobering statistics – that’s why our industry takes food safety seriously. We have a shared responsibility to prevent foodborne illness by collaborating with global organizations and governmental agencies, the supply chain, and ultimately consumers.
From farm to fork, consumers expect the foods they purchase and consume are safe and high-quality. The pandemic has heightened consumers’ desire for greater transparency and raised food safety concerns to the forefront.
How the frozen and refrigerated industry is protecting consumers
Collaborates and uses guidelines established by third parties
With a complex food supply system, food safety requires oversight and collaboration with multiple organizations and agencies.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates most food manufacturers in the United States (about 80%). In 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gave the FDA new authority to regulate how food is grown, harvested, and processed. The FSMA law is designed to transform the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.
In 2019, the FDA rolled out a new initiative, the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. The FDA wants to use technology and other measures to modernize and expand traceability and transparency in the food supply chain. For grocery stores, the FDA’s Food Code provides a model to enable local, state and federal food safety regulators to be consistent with national food policies for both retail and foodservice.
The primary mission of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is to support the country’s agricultural economy and ensure that products coming from our agricultural pipeline are safe and nutritious. They also provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management. Through the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the USDA regulates meat, poultry and egg products, like packaged egg whites at the manufacturer level. Products like frozen beef patties, frozen chicken nuggets, strips or patties, frozen processed sausage/pork products or refrigerated packaged egg products (not in the shell), to name a few, are also regulated by the USDA.
While the FDA and USDA are two of the largest governing bodies for food regulations and safety in the US, many state and local agencies are also involved in food safety compliance. Each state may set laws and inspection protocols through departments of health, agriculture or food safety. Local jurisdictions may have county or city food inspection agencies. In addition, the Codex Alimentarius International Food Standards are standards developed by a joint commission between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). This collection of food standards aims to protect consumers’ health and ensure fair practices in the food trade internationally.
Scientific research through government agencies, academic institutions and private partners reveals new measures to make food even safer from farm to fork. Consumers can rest assured knowing their health and safety are a top priority across the cold food chain.
Uses operational measures which prevent food safety problems
Food manufacturers, distributors and processors establish and implement internal procedures following federal, state and local regulations. Strong food safety management programs and protocols, such as Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HAACP), identify areas where food is at the highest risk of being unsafe and offer procedures to eliminate foodborne illness threats.
With the advent of the pandemic, manufacturers and retailers escalated their food handling and cleaning procedures. Education and reinforcement of standard food safety practices such as handwashing, more frequent disinfection & sanitization measures, and face and hand coverings became even more critical.
Focus on safe distribution and storage
The cold chain uses innovative technology to safeguard the public from pathogenic microorganisms, allergens, toxins and other contaminants.
Many cold chain providers adopt low-temperature chillers, that can freeze prepared foods quickly to ensure they are safe, disinfected and stored appropriately.
Warehouses are using innovations such as co-bots, ground-based drones, AI and machine learning to help facilitate more efficient order-picking of frozen and refrigerated foods – alleviating any thaw or dangerously low temperatures that might occur.
A recent survey shows that half of consumers worry about the safety of fresh, perishable and frozen foods while they are transported to stores. Nearly two out of three consumers agree that better technology has a role in keeping food safe. More than half of consumers say better data is needed to track food safety practices from farm to table. Artificial intelligence, such as transportation management systems that monitor temperature and other critical factors in real-time, can offer transparency to both food shippers and receivers.
Using emerging technology for transparency
We live in a digital world and technology is advancing in many sectors, including the food industry. Many food safety experts and agencies tout that using blockchain, AI and machine learning can bring transparency throughout the supply chain, reduce food fraud (intentional contamination or corruption of food) and enhance food safety. The FDA is leading the charge, stating that these emerging technologies are the future of tracking and tracing food sources and foodborne illness outbreaks.
Advances in genotype tracing for pathogens and parasites shed light on the extent of an outbreak and help associate the implicated food through which it was transmitted. The complexity of the food chain, having clear internal and public communication, coping with the high number of tests and feedback required during the escalation phase, obtaining relevant samples and having the right tools all affect the process of finding and tracing back to the route of transmission.
Food safety is a shared responsibility
A food system works best when we all share the responsibility. From the government level to the consumer, we all have a part to play.
At NFRA, we are working to do our part through collaboration with organizations such as the Partnership for Food Safety Education and promoting consumer food safety initiatives, including World Food Safety Day and #NationalFoodSafetyEducationMonth.
Our members are making strides every day to make our food healthier and safer. Food safety is a big job and takes the cooperation of many individuals to ensure it’s done correctly. As pioneers of the cool aisles, we know the frozen and refrigerated foods industry is equipped with the knowledge and the ingenuity to help prevent foodborne illness.