PMA’s Dr. Bob Whitaker Outlines The Logistics of a Foodborne Illness Outbreak

PMA’s Dr. Bob Whitaker Outlines The Logistics of a Foodborne Illness Outbreak

UNITED STATES - Science and numbers were never my forte, bringing me into the writing world and leaving the numbers to the experts. So when it comes to things like the delicate and complex practice of tracing back foodborne illness and how much power our industry could have, PMA’s Dr. Bob Whitaker needed to paint the picture.

Bob Whitaker, Ph.D., Chief Science & Technology Officer, PMA“The process of investigating an illness outbreak is extremely complex. Firstly, are people getting sick by the same organism?” Dr. Whitaker tells me, explaining that the current average between illness and reporting to the state public health and on to CDC is about 21 days. “Understandably, it becomes very difficult to find those that can recollect with any certainty what they ate three weeks ago. Once you have it down to what food might be responsible and the timing for when consumers got sick, the FDA jumps in to find out where that product may have come from.”

This, Dr. Whitaker explains, is where a big gap in the process continues to exist despite the transparency and traceability efforts implemented over the past decade. And where we might come together to present a united front on food safety throughout the supply chain.

“The problem in tracing back the product is often times at the point of sale. The package isn’t kept and it could be lost before the investigation occurs, so I think the real solution lies in a scannable, permanent electronic record that can be accessed quickly and sorted,” Dr. Whitaker observes.

The story now comes back to the space I think many were afraid it would go when the CDC and FDA issued an advisory to remove romaine lettuce from the market completely last month—yet another cost to suppliers amongst a number of existing initiatives to ensure the safest product possible. Sometimes in the wake of actions to protect the public by the agencies, it can feel that the constant measures our industry is taking with consumers’ safety in mind is lost.

“We have many companies leveraging the information and food safety research we have to prevent contamination, and did before what happened in Yuma or currently in the California areas FDA is currently investigating,” Dr. Whitaker agreed, but said there is certainly room for improvement. “This is a time of revolution on the produce safety front. The science and technology are exploding and we have to use those tools to ensure produce safety. Testing and audits are traditionally important tools but the real opportunities lie in operationally evaluating potential hazards and understanding how we can control those cross contamination points.”

“When you add all the costs, I think it’s time for an updated conversation to make sure we have a modern system to track product backward and forward through the supply chain,” he continues. “Though I would say it’s the supply chain’s responsibility for traceability, it has to go all the way through the point of sale to be effective. The FDA has cited this big hole in the process, meaning when they get to that last step they hit a wall.”

Most of all, more than tools by audits and testing, Dr. Whitaker says it’s participation from everyone in the supply chain, farm to kitchen, that is crucial.

“The good news is a lot of people in the industry are seeing that and really stepping up those actions, now it’s about spreading the word and bringing everyone else to that level,” he assures.

With continued interest in our industry’s future, be sure AndNowUKnow will remain on the lookout for what that next level looks like.

Produce Marketing Association

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