September is National Food Safety Month. Created in 1994, the annual campaign provides free training activities and posters are created for the restaurant and foodservice industry to help reinforce proper food safety practices and procedures.
The need for this awareness campaign is clear. The Centers for Disease Control says that one in six Americans get sick from contaminated food or drinks each year, which leads to 3,000 deaths. The Salmonella bacteria results in more hospitalizations and deaths than any other bacteria found in food and racks up $365 million in direct medical costs each year.
Blue Bell ice cream is thought to have caused three deaths due to Listeria contamination. The company recalled its products in mid-April, and in May the FDA released a scathing report detailing the food manufacturer’s unclean and unsafe practices. Furthermore, the FDA announced that Blue Bell was aware of the contamination problems as early as 2013.
In a recent Houston Chronicle article, Blue Bell workers described a dirty air vent that dripped into the product, a lack of hot water to properly clean equipment, re-used packaging, and malfunctioning machines that sliced off employees’ fingers. The employees allege that their complaints to management were ignored.
The Dallas Morning News interviewed a Blue Bell spokesman back in May 2015. The company’s response about why they didn’t report their contamination findings? In a nutshell: “Because we weren’t required to.”
Read more: Managing Data in Food Safety Cleanrooms
Has the company learned its lesson? Just yesterday, a family reported finding a plastic piece inside a tub of Blue Bell ice cream. Another report says that a customer found a plastic O-ring in her ice cream a few weeks ago — despite thinking that the object was a worm, she says she plans to keep buying Blue Bell because her grandchildren love it.
Do consumers even care whether or not Blue Bell has learned its lesson? Search the hashbag #bluebell and you’ll find Tweets, videos, and photos from people who are overjoyed that the dessert is available for sale again. Supermarkets are imposing purchasing limits to keep people from hoarding their supply. T-shirts with the slogan “I Survived the 2015 Blue Ball Famine” (keep in mind, this “famine” was the result of a recall that came after the company finally acknowledged at least two years’ worth of Listeria contamination) are up for sale all across the Internet. An ad appeared on the video screen at the Sept. 4 Houston Astros baseball game announcing Blue Bell’s return to store shelves, and the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. All for a company that ignored multiple warnings about unsafe product. These loyal consumers want their cookies and cream, folks … so what if three people died because of it?
The FDA is trying to catch up. Last week it announced that it has finalized the first two of seven major rules under the bipartisan FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This is Step One in placing a greater emphasis on preventing of foodborne illness, as well as holding imported food to the same food safety standard as domestically produced food. Furthermore, the FDA is seeking to develop a nationally integrated food safety system, partnering with state and local authorities. The initiative ensures that food companies work with the FDA to prevent hazards, rather than waiting until an outbreak to take action.
According to the FDA, “The preventive controls rules require human and animal food facilities to develop and implement written food safety plans that indicate the possible problems that could affect the safety of their products and outline steps the facility would take to prevent or significantly minimize the likelihood of those problems occurring. This means that food companies will be accountable for monitoring their facilities and identifying any potential hazards in their products and prevent those hazards. Under these rules, the FDA will be able to assess these systems and their outcomes to prevent problems, will better be able to respond when food safety problems occur, and better protect the safety of manufactured food.”
The seven FSMA rules will be finalized in 2016. Until then, consumers need to hope that food manufacturers do the right thing, instead of sticking their heads in the sand to avoid bad publicity and consumer boycotts … unless their product is tasty enough, I guess, in which case it probably doesn’t matter what corrections they may or may not make.