Are you concerned about making sure your family’s food supply is safe to eat?
If so, you can thank the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI). Few of the department’s responsibilities are more vital to the well-being of Alabamians than the department’s role in ensuring the safety of the state’s food supply.
“To be successful, food safety regulation must be timely and fair,” says Lance Hester, food safety director for ADAI. “And that means our inspectors must be experts.”
Beyond education and experience, Hester says the most important characteristic of a good inspector is the ability to adapt.
“We ask a lot of our inspectors,” he says. “On a given inspection, they deal with everything from rodent infestations to power outages. So it is very important they know what to look for and how to look for it.”
Much of the work done by inspectors comes at the retail level in large grocery stores and convenience stores. One of the main goals of these inspections is checking Class 1 foods, which include all refrigerated items. Product labels are also verified for accuracy, and a variety of individual products are selected for lab testing.
But food safety doesn’t end at the supermarket. ADAI inspectors currently conduct around 38 food processor inspections annually making sure that raw materials and production operations are safe.
The safety inspectors also conduct agriculture inspections. Seeds, pesticides and animal feeds are among the raw materials on farms that undergo lab testing. Inspectors also sample fertilizers and other products that the farmer purchases from agriculture businesses.
Alabama’s nearly 170 miles of coastline means seafood is also an important part of the department’s role in overseeing food safety.
The focus on seafood was expanded after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
For the seafood project, funded by BP Oil, ADAI has partnered with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Department of Public Health. Seafood inspectors sample and test fish and other seafood from the Gulf for manned antibiotics.
“Every time the ocean is stirred up, people will question the safety of the seafood,” Hester says. “In that sense, this isn’t just about food safety; it is about keeping the economy moving.”
This same consumer confidence also follows food and product recalls, which are one of the most visible ways ADAI is involved in food safety.
“When a recall occurs, we make sure products are removed from the marketplace that could be considered adulterated,” Hester says. “We deal with hundreds of recalls a year, almost daily. Unfortunately we can’t inspect every store to make sure products are removed.”
To address this problem, effectiveness checks are conducted to make sure communications from manufacturers to distributor are carried out so retail stores know to remove contaminated products.
Hester says this communication is also especially important in times of disaster, such as the tornadoes that tore through Alabama in April 2011.
“Food contamination was a big concern when the tornadoes hit,” he says. “That’s why we are always looking to expand our ability to communicate in real time.”
Food Recalls: Did You Know?
- The majority of food product recalls are related to food allergies.
- Until recently, all recalls were voluntary. In January 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to remove products from the market in the event that company refuses a voluntary recall.