The availability and affordability of safe food has a direct impact on our individual health, the well-being of our families, and (if we work in the food industry) the success and longevity of our careers. For this reason, each one of us, no matter what our personal role, has a direct interest in making sure the food we produce (and, ultimately, consume) is as safe as it can be.

To date, we’ve done an excellent job. Each year we proudly provide our fellow citizens with approximately 328.5 billion safe meals — and countless more safe snacks. Despite our best efforts, however, the existence of naturally occurring pathogens in our environment — and by extension in many foods — remains a real part of our business and lives. Given limitations of science and, in no small part, consumer behavior, no one is immune. Every month, for instance, approximately 6,000,000 Americans will develop some type of foodborne illness. Of these, approximately 325,000 individuals will be hospitalized, and nearly 5,000 could die.

No matter how much we care about food safety individually, we must recognize that this trend will likely accelerate. Given recent and substantial improvements in national foodborne illness outbreak surveillance, more foodborne illnesses are being identified, and more outbreaks are being reported. By extension, many outbreaks are being associated with an increasing number of foods, and more companies are — directly or indirectly — being affected.

Such increases in reported outbreaks and recalls, coupled with negative and frenzied media coverage, have also impacted public and governmental perceptions of food safety. In turn, we now find ourselves operating in a world where the politics of food safety often lead to new rules and regulations driven mostly by passion and emotion rather than science and reason. And, as an increasing number of companies prove they are unable to accomplish the impossible (by guaranteeing, for instance, the removal of all pathogens from all products), we will continue to see more adverse media coverage, more governmental regulation and, by extension, more frustration.

With that said, there are things we can do break this cycle. We can and should embrace a robust food-safety culture, closely monitor each of our suppliers, continuously refine our own GMPs, SSOPs and HACCP plans, and aggressively test incoming and outgoing product. We need to stay apprised of pending legislation and comment with a unified voice on proposed regulation. Whether such initiatives involve expanding the definition of “adulteration,” mandating new interventions, regulating additional in-plant validations, or requiring enhanced traceability from feedlot to fork, our collective survival — and success — will depend upon our commitment to stay both informed and actively engaged.

For this reason, in future editions of The National Provisioner, we look forward to providing timely insight on emerging trends in food safety, commenting on new laws and regulations, and offering expert counsel on what we can all do to anticipate new challenges, reduce future risk and decrease potential exposure. Ultimately, broader knowledge, thoughtful planning and aggressive engagement will be critical when it comes to surviving the 21st-century food-safety fight.