If food safety is simple, why do so many get sick?

Published by Andrew Thomson

Andrew is an experienced and trusted food safety consultant, and a highly regarded learning and development advisor. He has advised government agencies in Australia and overseas on food safety matters.


1 August 2019

Reproduced from Barfblog 1 August,2019.

Because it’s not simple: it’s complex, constant, requires commitment and information must be compelling.

Government, industry and academics continue to flog the food safety is simple line, despite outbreaks becoming increasingly complex and in the complete absence of any data that the message works.

We’ve shown that food safety stories can work. And I’m not embarrassed to wear the Leafs hoodie, because they are at least watchable now, unlike the last 52 years

Every summer (sure it’s winter here in Australia, but that’s an equator thing, and I still wear shorts 365 days of the year), tucked away in the back pages of every newspaper, it’s the same thing: bland pronouncements about how food safety is easy if consumers follow some simple steps, while the front page usually has another story about another outbreak of foodborne illness. What’s so simple about outbreaks in produce, pet food and peanut butter? Once the products were home, there was nothing individuals could have done to prevent the subsequent illnesses and deaths. Are consumers really expected to cook all their fresh tomatoes and leafy greens to 165F to kill salmonella? Fry up peanut butter? Bake the cat food? Yet there are a multitude of well-meaning groups who preach to the masses that food safety begins at home. Whether it’s a U.S. Department of Agriculture official saying in 2005 that, “Foodborne illness is very serious but easily prevented if foods are handled, prepared and cooked properly,” or a Canadian retail association saying in 2006 that “E. coli can be prevented through simple in home food safety practices such as washing thoroughly fresh produce in clean water for several minutes before consuming,” the it’s-simple message is pervasive, condescending and wrong. Food safety is complex, constant and requires commitment. Produce, peanut butter and pet food demonstrate that messages focused solely on consumers are woefully incomplete.

The World Health Organization recognized this back in 2001 and included a fifth key to safer food: use safe water and raw materials, or, source food from safe sources (http://www.who.int/foodsafety/consumer/5keys/en/index.html). Consumers must recognize — and demand — that the first line of defense be the farm. Every mouthful of fresh produce, processed food or pet food is a consumer’s act of faith. Every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and restaurant must stop blaming consumers and work instead on developing their own culture that values and promotes microbiologically safe food.