Is Our Food Supply Safe?

Is it possible to feed everyone in the world safely?

Food Supply Chain
Food Supply Chain. Getty Images

E. coli in our hamburgers, apple juice, and spinach. Hepatitis A in our green onions. Salmonella in our milk and peanuts. And listeria in everything from cheese to cold cuts to hot dogs to turkey to cantaloupe. Those are just the food contaminations that made United States national news since 1985. Over a hundred people died in those incidents and thousands upon thousands fell ill.

And that doesn't include the recent E.

coli and norovirus outbreaks at Chipotle restaurants or the E. coli found in Costco chicken salads. Fortunately, no one died as a result of those recent incidents, but they do renew the question of the safety in our food supply.

In reaction to the Costco E. coli outbreak, Chris Morrison of food safety company Trace One Chris Morrison had this to say:

"The E. coli outbreak that has been linked to Costco is an example of the importance of having a strong system in place to track food products, from the raw materials used to the products’ whereabouts in the marketplace. It helps companies identify the affected products, its origins and the extent of the impact. We are seeing brands like Costco become increasingly more responsive to food safety and quality issues like this."

In the United States, our food chain’s job is to feed 320 million people. Every farm, factory, packaging facility, distribution center, shipping container, truck, Domino’s delivery guy, and Western Sizzler buffet is exposed – to some degree – to bacteria, viruses, and other contagions.

Those contagions can be introduced into the food supply in any number of ways – either by nature (bacteria in soil), by accident (unsanitary food handling), or through someone wanting to make other people sick. 

Both localized food contamination issues (a single restaurant, for instance) and widespread ones – once recognized – require rapid traceability in order to contain and rectify the contamination.

In the case of the recent Chipotle and Costco cases, both companies needed to figure out if the contamination was a result of their processes not being robust enough or if there was a breakdown in a system that otherwise worked.  

Again, Chris Morrison of food safety company Trace One: "It is a bit of both - a systemic and a process breakdown. Contamination can occur in many places in the supply chain – at the farm, through transportation, during packaging or in storage. When you have celery that is an ingredient in many ready-made foods, what matters the most is how quickly the cause is identified as well as the source. Improved identification and testing means contamination can be found a lot easier. However, what makes the recall and tracking of the contaminated ingredient swift and effective is how well retailers know their own supply chains so that once the identification is made through testing, the source can be found, the product can be pulled – thereby limiting the amount of illness."

That’s the good news. Once we realize the problem with our food supply, we tend to be relatively good at identifying and containing it. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for.

Because as I alluded to above, there are thousands upon thousands of touchpoints in the food supply chain.

And that’s just in the United States. Imagine trying to secure the entire food chains of populations two and three times that size. There is no realistic way to avoid future food contaminations. In the same way that we need to remain diligent in today’s world, we need to remain the same regarding our food. 

Optimized supply chain is getting our customers what they want, when they want it – and doing that by spending as little money as possible. But when it comes to the food supply chain, maybe we need to sacrifice some of those cost savings for security and sanitation precautions.