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National Restaurant Association - Food safety experts: Play ‘safe’ and thrive

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Food safety experts: Play ‘safe’ and thrive

Food safety and sourcing are critical to successful supply chain management, and all potential risks should be addressed before they can occur, industry experts say.

"There is inherent risk in putting food on your tables, and it is incumbent on all of us to not to make 48 million people sick," Shawn Stevens, food-safety attorney for Gass Weber Mullins in Milwaukee, told attendees of the National Restaurant Association's recent Supply Chain Management conference in Chicago.

"Can you withstand the scrutiny of litigation?" Stevens asked, noting that approximately 500,000 lawyers in the United States currently specialize in handling food-poisoning cases. "We can't be complacent," he said. "We have to aggressively identify and chase down problems."

According to the attorney, tracking contamination to the source through national surveillance is becoming a more robust practice. He said restaurant operators should visit their key suppliers and assess not only their businesses, but also their attitudes toward food safety, as well as audit their own operations to ensure they're doing everything they can to keep the food they serve safe.

Mohammad Koohmaraie, chief executive of Washington state-based IEH Laboratories' meat division, said scientists are working to eliminate E. coli from the meat supply.

"You can't test your way to food safety, but testing helps," he said, adding that the recently enacted U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act requires more stringent food safety controls. Koohmaraie also predicted that the cost of those increased safety controls would be passed on to consumers and that the price of ground beef would rise as a result.

He further advised restaurant operators to avoid asking customers how they'd like their burgers prepared and, instead, cook them to 160 degrees to kill pathogens. "There is only one way to have a burger, and that's well-done," he said.

Advanced oxidation technology that would decontaminate foods also could be a solution to food-borne illness, said James Marsden, Regents distinguished professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. "It doesn't affect product quality and it enhances shelf life," he said.

The technology, he added, could also be used in ice machines to eliminate mold spores. "It's a natural means for decontamination," he said.

Besides improving technology, empowering employees to report any potential dangers is necessary as well, said Bridget Tinsley, manager of the global food program for Washington, D.C.-based safety science firm Underwriters Laboratories. "We have to change behavior and the way we do things," she stated.

Hank Lambert, general manager of Underwriters Laboratories' global food and water division, noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it plans to toughen traceability requirements of the foods it regulates, just as the Food and Drug Administration has done.

"The industry needs to move in this direction," he said. "It will drive value for everyone, from growers to producers to consumers."

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