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The Wrong Food Safety Tool Problem

Earlier this week, I (along with several respected colleagues) published a column in Food Safety News titled, "Is mandatory end-product testing the best approach for managing hepatitis A in berries?"

While millions of servings of fresh and frozen berries are consumed safely every day in our country, unfortunately, berries have occasionally been linked to foodborne illnesses. These events have cause one retailer to implement an end-product testing requirement among their suppliers.

While I believe the requirement is well-intentioned, it's a classic example of what I call the "wrong food safety tool" problem." A mistake I see repeated over and over again in our profession.

As a microbiologist and someone who started my career at the lab bench, I'm a big fan of and appreciate the role of microbiological testing in advancing food safety. After all, microbial hazards in the food supply cannot be seen with the naked eye. However, over the years, I've learned the hard way that the real question is NOT to test or not to test, but rather:

  • why do you test? (for example, is the testing done to find potential sources and routes of contamination, is it to validate a process, or is it for verification purposes?)

  • what method do you use?

  • what is your sampling plan? and, very importantly, among other questions,

  • what do you do with the test results?

In the article, which you can find in its entirety here, I write:

An over-reliance on end-product testing, using current methods and low-powered sampling plans, while well-intentioned, may provide a false sense of security and hinder more meaningful and needed progress to further strengthen the safety of these important and nutritious products."

Most recently, I saw this same mistake being applied in the powdered infant formula industry.

We all want safe food. But let's advance food safety in a scienced based, statistically informed and prevention focused way. Consumers deserve that from us.


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