I started off this year’s state of the industry report by looking at the recalls on the USDA-FSIS and FDA Web sites. Comparing 2013 to 2015 there has been a 15 percent increase in the total recalls, but that in and of itself doesn’t tell the whole story. FDA recalls actually dropped 15 percent, while FSIS recalls increased by 107 percent over the same time period.

So what is driving the increase by FSIS? The number of recalls for misbranded product jumped from three to 17, recalls for no inspection jumped from five to 30, and recalls for undeclared allergens jumped from 28 to 63. Total recalls went from 72 in 2013 to 149 in 2015. If FSIS is asking you to do a recall it is more than likely a labeling issue. Over 50 percent of recalls are due to incorrect labels.

For comparison, E. coli recalls dropped from nine to seven, Salmonella recalls went from three to four, and Listeria recalls were the same at five for each time period.

It is clear from the numbers that the industry has done a much better job of dealing with pathogens than it has done with labeling issues!

In April the World Health Organization (WHO) held “World Health Day 2015” and highlighted the challenges and opportunities associated with food safety under the slogan “From farm to plate, make food safe.” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director General, made the statement: “A local food safety problem can rapidly become an international emergency. Investigation of an outbreak of foodborne disease is vastly more complicated when a single plate or package of food contains ingredients from multiple countries.”

Statements such as these have resulted in an even greater emphasis on buy local, buy small, etc. Additionally, these statements have many wondering what the roles government inspection agencies, third-party audit agencies and labeling requirements play concerning food sourcing and safety programs.

On June 16, 2015, the FDA determined that trans fats are not fit for human food, and all food manufactures in the United States would have three years to remove them from their processed products. The FDA noted in its implementation release that trans fats do naturally occur in small amounts in meat and dairy products as well as other edible oils.

Lawsuits continue over food safety-related events, including recent cucumber recalls, Salmonella recalls, etc. Although no hard data exists as to the number of lawsuits filed related to foodborne illnesses and deaths, based on the traction they have gotten in the mainstream media, it appears that they are on the rise. In addition, the penalties aren’t just financial, prosecutors are asking for jail time. In at least one case they have asked for a life sentence and the person in question received a 28 year sentence in jail, plus fines.

One of the positive trends we are seeing in food safety is post-packaging pasteurization. As the different processes are expanded and the technologies mature, we expect to see more products diverted through a post-packaging pasteurization process in the future.

Salmonella continues to be of concern, not only in the U.S., but overseas as well. In August, Australia reported a decline in foodborne illness rates, except Salmonella infections.

FSIS was better funded this year, as evidenced by their spending (supervisory conferences, etc.). The administration has been scrutinizing overtime, making sure that they either are charging it or forcing a recall of the product when it fails to have the benefit of inspection. While FSIS is limited on what it can do with the funds, it is clear it is maximizing receipts. (Editor’s Note: Read more on FSIS’ expenditures next month, when Andrew Lorenz digs into how FSIS trains its workforce.)

The biggest story about food safety this year isn’t even really about food safety, it is about social media and its impact. How many times have we seen a tweet, post, or some other bogus “scientific study” that slams the meat and poultry industry? There has been a significant, frightening upward trend of special-interest groups and individuals attempting to, and in some cases succeeding at, influencing food-safety standards and regulations, and most importantly customer perceptions of our products.

An example is American Association for Justice advocating that food safety be driven by the court system and not by the agencies charged with regulating the different food industries. To get everyone’s attention they publish a report, twist some facts and push it out to see where it goes on social media. I cringed when it came across my news feed. As in many of these types of “reports” and “announcements,” the statements are not backed up by hard facts, but by pseudo-science and generating public panic via social media. As the regulators attempt to respond to the politicians and people who buy into this type of publicity, they inevitably ignore real science and create new rules and regulations that fail to make our food products safer. In pulling resources from real food safety issues, they may make our food less safe.

Going forward, we as an industry have to come to grips not only with the ever-changing consumer, but with the changing way people get information and how they accept it. Putting a message out on a Web page simply doesn’t cut it anymore. We have to get the message out about the products we produce via multiple social-media channels and be able to back up what we say. The vast majority of products in the marketplace are safe, wholesome products, yet we are losing the social-media war because we are not getting that message across. Not only does this embolden federal and state regulators to over-regulate, but it also creates new industries around litigation and auditing, all of which takes precious resources away from actual food safety.

My advice for all producers, large and small, as we move from the “Year of the Recall” and into the “Social Media Misinformation Era”: Look at your labels (and get someone else to also look) to make sure they are accurate, and leverage social media to let the world know that you make an awesome, healthy and safe product — backed by real science. NP

State of the Industry 2015 segments

Industry overview Goes live Oct. 6
Food Safety Oct. 7
Packaging Oct. 8
Beef (NCBA) Oct. 9
Beef (CAB) Oct. 12
Pork Oct. 13
Chicken Oct. 14
Turkey Oct. 15
Veal Oct. 16
Lamb Oct. 19