The DARK SIDE to Food Safety
Yes, there is a dark side to food safety. But before we get there, we need to look at the food manufacturing industry. Economic Research Data shows that food & beverage plants make up 14.7 percent of all employees from all U.S. manufacturing plants (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2021).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) explains, “These plants employed 1.7 million workers in 2019 (about 14.7 percent of all U.S. manufacturing employment and just over 1.1 percent of all U.S. nonfarm employment).”
Another way to conceptualize the sheer numbers is in this chart of food plants throughout America:
The problem: We have food safety measures for consumers, but not food plant safety for workers.
Next up: FDA, CDC, & OSHA
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have an interest in not just responding to foodborne illness but preventing it.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The FSMA has specific rules to prevent contamination, including analysis and preventative measures.
In summary, the owner, operator, or agent in charge of a facility shall evaluate the hazards that could affect food manufactured, processed, packed, or held by such facility, identify and implement preventive controls to significantly minimize or prevent the occurrence of such hazards and provide assurances that such food is not adulterated, monitor the performance of those controls, and maintain records of this monitoring as a matter of routine practice. You may visit the FDA’s website for the full text of the FSMA (Titles I-IV).
A quick visit to the CDC website shows a quick reference on the homepage of current recalls and outbreaks. I clicked on the first listing, Listeria in Cooked Chicken. Instantly I can see specific product data including locations the contaminated food was sold, the lot numbers and product codes, plus recognizing symptoms, action steps, and even investigation data to include reports, timeline, and a map of affected areas.
Another regulatory authority is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Let’s take a look at what OSHA does for the food industry:
“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created by Congress to help protect workers by setting and enforcing workplace safety and health standards and by providing safety and health information, training and assistance to workers and employers” (Curtis, 2013).
This all sounds great, doesn’t it? Do you feel confident these agencies have a handle on food safety? Well, unfortunately, we need to talk about the dark side.
There is a Dark Side to Most Regulatory Authorities
What I am referring to is a regulatory authority’s use of ambiguous terminology, which leaves many confused, or like me, exasperated.
For example, how do you truly enforce a recommendation? I have had fingers pointed firmly in a rulebook that “this is what it has to be – it must look like this, follow this table, be aligned in this order, just as you see here.”
Except there’s an emboldened word right above the table, that says recommends. How about this, I recommend that you eat at my favorite pizza place. If you don’t, what happens? If it is a rule or requirement then just say so.
Government red tape loses some stickiness here, as well. Take into account this Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) response letter, where a concerned employee notified OSHA about unsafe practices where consumables such as coffee and water, were housed in proximity to toxic materials. The letter falls under what OSHA calls “Standard Interpretations.”
I understand OSHA requirements are set by specific standards, but why are they interpreted instead of just being what they are? Does this mean the interpretation changes from one agent to the next? I interpret that to be a major problem in enforcing regulations, no matter the authority.
So How Does OSHA Aid in the Food Industry?
Shockingly, OSHA lacks crucial mandates for the food manufacturing and packaging industry. How can that be?
“All industries face safety hazards in the workplace. From construction sites to office desk jobs, companies tend to issue safety protocols that all employees should be aware of in the case of an incident. However, one specific industry that needs more mandates to protect its employees from illness or injury is the food manufacturing industry” (Marsh, 2021).
OSHA Standards for foodborne illness are addressed in TWO Sections. Those sections are General Industry (29 CFR 1910) and the Construction Industry (29 CFR 1926), and deal mainly with sanitation and having potable water.
While I’m certain OSHA wants to save lives, prevent injuries, and protect the health of workers, why is there little regulation in the food industry compared to all others?
Has OSHA “washed their hands” of having an official say in the matter?
“The quality of food, and controls used to prevent foodborne diseases, are primarily regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local public health authorities. These diseases may be occupationally related if they affect the food processors (e.g., poultry processing workers), food preparers and servers (e.g., cooks, waiters), or workers who are provided food at the worksite” (OSHA, 2021).
Case in point: During the global COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA accused a sausage and poultry company, Smithfield Foods, of a COVID worker safety violation which was later dismissed. As the aforementioned article states, “OSHA proposed fining the world’s biggest pork processor $13,494, the maximum allowed by law” (Polansek & Huffstutter, 2020).
But the fine wasn’t merited specifically FOR food safety (remember there is no OSHA standard) but instead enveloped as an occupational safety and health violation due to Coronavirus.
Don’t Be Left in the Dark
We know OSHA has power, but food companies are still left in the dark. With this power to fine companies for not adhering to guidelines, why can’t food safety preventive measures be mandated by OSHA and adhered to by these companies or penalized for non-compliance? The penalties are clearly laid out under the OSH Act of 1970 for everything else!
Until OSHA steps up with adequate mandates, food manufacturing, and packaging plants are left to set their own requirements. And how safe is that, truly?
The truth is, without mandates, not everyone will have the same level of safe practices, their employees won’t be afforded the same quality and quantity of training, and safety programs could be lacking any value.
Be a Change Agent
Start now, and implement quality standards to protect you, your employees, the community, and your business.
The best way to do that is to talk to our team about scheduling a complimentary executive briefing where we will show you how we can help your company to improve performance by analyzing and fixing problems discovered in precursor incidents to prevent major accidents, quality issues, equipment failures, and environmental damage.
We also offer in-person training courses, virtual and e-learning courses, webinars, software, plus a wide variety of books and other training materials. Find out more at www.Taproot.com.