By mid-summer, 2018 had already been a busy year on the food-safety front. Hit with a long list of recalls and high-profile outbreaks from a variety of sources — romaine lettuce, precut melon and veggie trays, fresh eggs, a cereal brand and McDonald’s salads among them — industry and consumers alike were reminded that victory remains elusive in the battle against foodborne illness. Despite today’s more sophisticated systems and increased regulation, pathogens, pests and other substances harmful to human health continue to make their way into the food supply.

The most recent figures available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bear that out, showing that each year some 48 million people in the United States get sick from a foodborne illness. Of those, 128,000 are serious enough to require hospitalization, and 3,000 people die.

Food safety romaine lettuce

This spring’s romaine-related E. coli outbreak alone is believed to have sickened at least 210 people from 36 states. Of those, 96 were hospitalized, 27 experienced kidney failure and 5 died — surpassing the impact of the E. coli-contaminated spinach outbreak in 2006 and resulting in more deaths than the infamous 1993 E. coli outbreak traced to undercooked Jack in the Box burger patties.

Yes, progress has been made over the years — a lot of progress in many areas, including significant advancements in testing and investigation to determine the likely cause and source when foodborne illness incidents arise. And bolstering existing regulatory efforts, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is beginning to shift focus from reactionary to preventative, mandating verification and documentation of measures that manufacturers, importers and distributors must take to reduce risk of contamination farther up the supply chain.

But as the steady stream of outbreaks suggests, and as the food supply chain becomes increasingly global and complex, it’s clear that winning future food safety battles will require new thinking, broader commitment and a few shots of disruptive innovation. Reflecting on the state of food safety, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, M.D., deputy commissioner for Food and Veterinary Medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, admitted to attendees at a recent food safety conference, simply, “We have a lot of work to do.”

Jorge Hernandez, chief food safety officer at Cleveland-based Wholesome Foods International, a Five Guys Burgers & Fries franchisee and parent of the upstart Choolaah Indian BBQ fast-casual brand, likens the current environment to Renaissance times.

At Cleveland-based Choolaah Indian BBQ, new technologies come into play in both the back and front of the house, including automated handwashing units for customer use in all dining rooms. Photo courtesy of Choolaah Indian BBQ

“The world at that time was changing in so many directions. My world, at the ground level today, is changing very fast too,” says Hernandez, who spent more than a decade leading food safety and quality assurance at US Foods before joining Wholesome Foods International. “The changes are massive — supply chain, globalization, scientific, technological. We don’t even understand some of them yet. Whatever I knew before might give me a frame of reference, but it doesn’t give me the answers for the future.”

One example, Hernandez says, is testing and detection. “We’re now able to detect pathogens or allergens, in some cases to the DNA or genomic level, and match them very quickly. It used to take 10 to 12 days to detect salmonella in products using traditional culture-dependent testing methods,” he adds. “That’s been reduced to 24 to 48 hours, and I read recently about a new test that can do it in 30 minutes to 3 hours. That means we could now test fresh product at the supplier level, in the field or the processing facility, assess risk and apply preventive controls before that product is shipped. In the past, we couldn’t wait for that kind of testing to be done on fresh items because we’d lose too much shelf life waiting for the results.”

While new tests for many strains of pathogens are fast, they’re also costly, requiring expensive equipment and trained personnel. “You can’t do it with everything,” Hernandez notes, “but it’s a promising development for high-risk product categories.”

Tom Chestnut, senior vice president, Global Food Division, at NSF International, agrees, noting that, while such advancements are positive, they also present challenges. “The technology to detect many of these problems is outpacing our ability to be proactive in preventing them,” he says. “Everything is faster and more complex, and it really stresses our ability to make sure things are done properly, that we can eliminate human error.”

Tech, Big Data Drive Advancements

Food safety experts and operators agree that bringing about real, preventive change in the future requires holistic, systemic and verifiable approaches to producing foods and moving them through the supply chain safely. At the operations level, broader embrace of HACCP-driven strategies proven to improve safety and quality in manufacturing will help move the needle. And, as costs come down and understanding rises, technology and data analytics will help mitigate the ever-present risk of human error.

William Weichelt, director of Food Safety & Industry Relations at the National Restaurant Association, says operators face a two-pronged challenge: controlling risks associated with products coming in the back door and having systems in place to minimize controllable risks within their own four walls.

Technology, Weichelt says, will play a bigger role on both sides of that coin in the future. Already, innovations such as wireless sensors on refrigerators and freezers that issue alerts to managers when units can’t maintain temperatures improve safety internally and ease HACCP and health code compliance efforts.

Food Safety EY Girl with Screen Photo courtesy of EyeSucceedWearable technology systems in development enable foodservice operators to train and guide employees in real time via augmented reality, ultimately reducing risks by reducing human errors. Photo courtesy of EyeSucceed

The next big thing, Weichelt predicts, is big data. “The more data that operators are able to collect via new technologies to analyze and improve food safety, supply chain management, operations and efficiency, that’s the biggest benefit yet to be realized. It’s a big shift for food safety because it minimizes the amount of front-end, manual work that has to be done — and that often doesn’t get done or done well,” he says.

Dr. Hal King, founder and CEO of consulting and ideation firm Public Health Innovations LLC, also sees the industry moving toward technologies that empower operators to apply and ensure training, track sick employees, provide tools for HACCP compliance and benefit from safety-related alerts, such as recalls. Prior to founding Public Health Innovations, King spent more than a decade as director of food and product safety at Chick-fil-A. This year he received NSF International’s Food Safety Leadership Award for his many contributions to industry and regulatory efforts to improve safety.

“When I was at Chick-fil-A, advancements that I really appreciated were in the area of smart equipment,” King says. “You program something, and you can count on it being done consistently. Smart to the point where, if I pour cold oil into a hot oil system, it won’t let me cook. Or dishwashers that won’t operate if the sanitizer concentration and/or water temperature aren’t correct. Or clean-in-place equipment systems. Those types of innovations really help to ensure safety, versus having to count on an employee to check every single time and adhere to all of the proper guidelines.”

At Choolaah Indian BBQ, Hernandez says new technologies come into play in both the back and front of the house. For instance, each of the fast-casual concept’s five units includes a front-of-the-house automated handwashing station for customer use. “Some think it’s cute, and they have fun with it, but ultimately our message is that we’re serious about food safety,” he says. “It’s our responsibility, but it also says to them that they play a part. Anything like that that allows us to not only help make food safe but also engages customers in the process is good.”

Going forward, technologies such as mobile apps will also help operators move the food-safety needle, King says. For example, putting information about allergens in menu items and standard operating procedures for handling safety-related issues or complaints at employees’ fingertips, via easily accessible phone apps, enables them to make better, faster decisions.

Dennis Keith, president of consulting firm Respro Food Safety Professionals and founder of Food Safety Nation, a foodservice-focused e-newsletter, agrees technology will continue to be a game-changer. Areas such as temperature monitoring and the ability for managers to remotely access and act on real-time information uploaded to the cloud help operators “move in the right direction,” he says. “Any time you can automate some of these processes that employees need to do every day, like taking temperatures and checking sanitizer levels, that’s helpful.”

Although tech solutions continue to develop rapidly and most large chains continue to implement them, Keith points out investment costs and lack of internal expertise keep many smaller operators on the sidelines. “Operators have to carefully evaluate ROI. If there was a good system out there that really hit the mark it could deliver a lot of value,” Keith says. “Unfortunately, even though the technology is advancing, not everyone’s able to implement it. And there are still too many glitches and issues with communications and WiFi. There’s also still a lot of work to be done with things like robotics. They might address labor and some safety issues, but what about cleanability and cross-contamination? A robot might
not come to work with norovirus or hepatitis A, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to get dirty and harbor pathogens.”

Keith observes, too, that innovation seems to have stalled in some traditional equipment categories. On his wish list for safety-related disruptive ideas: next-gen cold tables. “Someone needs to find a way of keeping the food cold on top as well as on bottom,” Keith says. “In hot climates and hot kitchens, unless you keep the lid closed all the time that’s impossible to do with the current generation of equipment.”

Improving Safety, Virtually

One area in which disruptive innovation shows significant future promise is employee training, King says. He points to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and wearable technology as developments that enable operators to pass knowledge to employees in the work setting in real time.

Keith agrees, noting that, while there’s a long way to go before such technologies are ready for prime time in restaurants, “I could see a customized VR training program on how to set up, clean and maintain a walk-in cooler, for instance. You could do a virtual walk-through inside of the cooler to communicate and demonstrate storage, temperature taking and sanitation procedures. I really like that concept because it’s hands-free and puts them right in the setting, virtually, during the training.”

In fact, wearable technology and AR solutions are starting to impact the foodservice industry. One application initially focused on tapping Google Glass for remotely conducting food-safety audits and inspections around the globe, and broader applications are emerging. The pilot program guided the foodservice manager through the operation during a food-safety audit. “Not only did it save the labor and expense of doing an in-person audit, but it actually became an advanced training exercise because it actively engaged the manager; he wasn’t just along for the ride,” adds Chestnut, who prior to joining NSF was Darden Restaurants’ vice president of total quality and international director of product safety and quality.

New developments in this area offer even greater potential. For example, a new training module for the food industry shows the potential to correct human behavior in real time. “Imagine, for example, an employee about to fill an order for a 10-inch pizza,” Chestnut offers. “With wearable technology, if he or she starts to make the pizza without first putting gloves on, the system issues a stop alert and reminds them to put gloves on before it will let them go further. If he or she starts to use a 12-inch crust instead of 10-inch, it will stop them. It can tell them if they have their cheese evenly spread. If you look at all of the recalls and foodborne illness incidents, a large percent are caused by human error. We’re still experimenting and testing, but we feel that if we can bring technology to bear on human error it will be truly transformational for the industry.”

Advancing Transparency, Accountability

Science and new technologies may drive much of the positive change on the food-safety front, but regulation continues to play a role too. It has become a major motivator for operators and manufacturers, alike, according to Hernandez. He feels FSMA, in particular, changes how the industry looks at food safety by putting much stronger focus on supply chain issues and accountability.

“As an operator, you can no longer just plug in a standard program or approach to food safety that everyone uses,” Hernandez says. “You really have to look at your own situation on a product-by-product basis — what you’re buying, who you’re buying it from, how it’s processed, how it gets to you and how you use it in your specific facilities. You have to do the legwork. If the supplier can’t verify that products have been handled or treated properly to kill pathogens, we need to be able to show regulators how we handle it and verify the kill step that we take on our own. It puts a lot more burden on us to think differently. We have to question everything and no longer can assume, for instance, that products we’re buying from big brands must be OK.”

In the case of smaller suppliers, meeting new regulations sometimes means going the extra mile and working with them to ensure compliance. Such was the case with a local Amish producer from which Choolaah’s buyers wanted to source fresh cheese.

“We brought a recipe for very authentic Indian paneer and asked if they could make it for us, but they didn’t have the controls in place that we needed,” Hernandez says. “I ended up working with them to implement systems that could meet our standards. Ultimately, they became SQF [Safe Quality Food] certified. Making cheese isn’t our business, but by partnering with them they improved their business and can now safely sell to us as well as to other customers.”

Scott Brooks, founder of River Run Consulting, agrees supply chain management from a food-safety standpoint is becoming increasingly important. And while its actual implementation and impact will take some time to be realized, particularly as medium- and small-size manufacturers work to come into compliance, FSMA’s focus on hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls will be a boon to the industry.

“It won’t be a magic bullet, but ultimately it will raise the bar on food-safety performance across the board,” says Brooks, who held food safety, quality assurance and regulatory affairs positions at Kraft, PepsiCo and Yum! Brands prior to founding River Run. “Bottom-feeder companies and buyers out there who have skimped on food safety controls to lower costs will no longer be able to do so. Coming into compliance with the new regulations, however, is a long and expensive process. It won’t happen overnight.”

Execution at the operator level, that is, adhering to FDA Food Code guidelines for temperature maintenance,
hand washing and preventing cross-
contamination, and management practices such as not allowing sick employees to work, will continue to be critical, adds Brooks. “That’s all an ongoing challenge for operators, but it’s a matter of execution not rocket science. Where things really need to change for many companies is supply chain related,” he says.

This spring’s romaine-related E. coli outbreak illustrates both the importance of creating better traceability systems and the difficulty of doing so.

The FDA eventually traced the origin of the outbreak to lettuce grown in the Yuma, Ariz., region, where E. coli- contaminated canal water is believed to have tainted the lettuce. From there, however, the FDA reported that the product was “supplied to restaurants and retailers through multiple processors, grower/shipper companies and farms” and that the information it collected “indicates that the illnesses associated with this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor or distributor.”

Enter blockchain, an emerging technology that proponents say stands to make a dramatic and positive impact on supply chain transparency, accuracy and accountability. Initially developed for the cryptocurrency market, the technology has since been embraced as an important supply chain management and traceability tool.

In simple terms, a blockchain creates an immutable, digital, open-source record of every transaction in a product’s journey to restaurant or retailer.

“Let’s say there are five parties in a particular supply chain. Each one pushes data into the system, and the system programmatically connects those pieces, or blocks, of data,” explains
Suzanne Livingston, an IBM Food Trust Offering director who is helping to lead that company’s blockchain initiatives.

“The data is locked in the blockchain; once a transaction has been submitted, it is immutable,” Livingston says. “If you need to make a change because of human error, you must submit another entry into the digital ledger, and there’s always a record. Data ownership and rights are distributive. You own your data, and you have a copy of every record that’s in the system, even if you may not have direct access to it. Only the parties that need to know have access, which encourages the sharing of data and trust in the system.”

Ultimately, a blockchain gives participating companies the ability to quickly and easily trace products at any point in their supply chain that may be implicated in foodborne illness.

With that basic mission of providing transparency and traceability, blockchain is evolving to provide broader benefits and applications as well, Livingston adds. For instance, companies can submit documentation about their products and facilities, such as organic certifications, certificate expiration dates, temperature maintenance logs and audit reports.

“If a particular food product has been sent for testing, results can be uploaded into the system for that batch,” Livingston says. “If I have organic romaine, here’s my certificate proving that it’s organic. That gets stored in the blockchain too. If my organic certification is set to expire in August, the system will alert me ahead of time that I need to update it.”

Looking to the future, Livingston foresees the day when companies in a blockchain could choose to make information within in it accessible to consumers also. “Our goal right now is to help identify and get at-risk foods out of the supply chain as quickly as possible,” she says. “But just imagine a consumer placing an order from a mobile device being able to tap in to find out where ingredients are coming from, which menu items have the most organic ingredients or allergens, what’s sourced locally. It’s great to have the supply chain data and traceability, but we’re not far off from blockchain being something that could be put in the hands of consumers too, and that’s pretty exciting.”