December 2008: A Pivotal Year for Food Safety
2008 was a year of food safety woes, scares and scandals. The year began with the largest beef recall in U.S. history. The incident involving one "downer" cow, 11 slaughterhouses and 143 million pounds of beef triggered questions about the safety protocols and procedures in slaughterhouses across the country and whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food safety inspections do enough to protect public health.
The Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak in late May put more than 1,400 people in 43 states in the hospital. FDA's investigation initially and erroneously tied tomatoes to the outbreak, financially devastating the tomato industry and deterring consumers from purchasing tomatoes for months following the completion of the investigation. Consumer confidence in food safety further eroded when it was discovered that some of the melamine contaminated milk and dairy products that sickened over 50,000 people in China may have entered the U.S. food supply with FDA having little to no mechanism in place to effectively monitor, detain or remove the contaminated products.
The cascade of food safety incidents increased consumers' desire to know that their products are safe, and where they come from. The passing of the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation, which required supermarkets to label the country of origin on meat, produce and certain nuts, and the final Produce Traceability Initiative guidelines, (which calls for a common standard for external traceability of produce in cases) have set in motion new ways for American consumers to get information about their food. They also hold the potential to bring new levels of operational visibility and efficiencies to growers, shippers, distributors, retailers and food service operators.
2009 will likely bring change to food safety policy. With the Obama administration and a Democratic-led Congress taking the reins in January, the FDA is likely to gain more oversight of imports, and new food safety legislation is expected.
So, what changes will take place in the food industry under the Obama Administration? According to the piece by leading trend analyst and consumerologist Phil Lempert in this month's Progressive Grocer, the industry should expect tougher safety regulations in factory farms, expansion of COOL and new adoption of technologies to improve traceability, food recalls, and nutrition education.