Dining out in a restaurant or taking home dinner from a grocery store deli is a demonstration of consumer trust. In turn, restaurants put their trust in distributors and that chain of trust extends all the way to the growers.
Making sure that trust is well placed is why the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA) is committed to the implementation of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) administered by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
Food safety is a concern among consumers, especially in recent years with foodborne illness outbreaks across multiple states. About 48 million people, or one in six Americans, get sick each year from foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Food safety is a major concern of our department. We have had statutes in place for decades that help food establishments maintain a safe food supply nationwide,” says Tom Jensen, chief administrator for NDA. “The new rules under FSMA are proactive in ensuring food safety by implementing a ‘risk-based’ sampling program. In the past, the FDA placed an emphasis on reacting to foodborne outbreaks. Now, the agency’s goal is to prevent these incidents before they occur.”
Food Establishment Inspections
The FDA is promoting seven rules under the FSMA, and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture is working to ensure that the act is consistently carried out. Inspecting food establishments is just one of the ways the department is getting the job done.
“For many decades, our food inspection program has sought to assure food facilities are in control of food safety within their establishments,” Jensen says. “For instance, if a foodborne illness could be caused by food being stored at an improper temperature, we make certain the establishment has the capability to maintain the proper temperature to minimize the threat of illness. There are many steps establishments must take to assure food safety, and our inspections help assure these steps take place.”
State agencies like NDA perform about 80 percent of food inspections nationwide using the latest available scientific information on the causes and prevention of foodborne illnesses. Their work helps minimize the threat of illness for consumers.
Food Testing in NDA Labs
Dirk Shoemaker is the laboratory administrator for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and oversees food and animal feed testing in NDA’s four labs. Thirteen staff members participate in routine food testing, checking to make sure foods (including pet foods) are free from contaminants such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. They also test for heavy metals such as lead and mercury. These efforts to detect contaminated foods help protect Nebraska consumers.
“I am very passionate about food and animal feed safety,” Shoemaker says. “Helping guide large or small projects to completion is very rewarding.”
An excellent example is recently achieving International Standards Organization (ISO) 17025 laboratory accreditation for NDA’s Food and Residue laboratories. This effort was FDA-funded and part of FSMA which allows legal action for food and animal feed recalls based on results produced by ISO 17025 accredited laboratories. ISO accreditation is the worldwide standard for food/feed testing and involved a 2.5-year time commitment for these labs to achieve. ISO accreditation is a worldwide trend not only for food/feed labs but also for other types of labs that test forensic (crime) and clinical (human) samples.
In 2014-2015, NDA found contaminants in two pet food samples and one ice cream sample they tested, leading to two national recalls issued by the FDA.
“One pet food recall was contained in Nebraska due to excellent work by our Animal and Plant Health Protection Focus Area. The other pet food was a national recall, as was the ice cream sample,” Shoemaker explains. “Our food lab testing provided us with presumptive positive results, which were confirmed by Denver/FDA and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.”
The ice cream recall was particularly pertinent, because public health clinical testing showed that no one was infected from the ice cream.
“We found Listeria monocytogenes in the ice cream, and although most people can ward off this pathogen, for those who don’t it has a 20 percent fatality rate,” Shoemaker explains. “It also causes stillbirth in pregnant women, so it’s a very dangerous pathogen. This recall is just one example of the FSMA working like it’s supposed to – preventing food borne illness before it becomes a problem.”
Food Safety at Home
Follow these four simple steps provided by FoodSafety.gov
1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often to prevent the spread of bacteria.
2. Separate: Prevent cross-contamination of raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs with ready-to-eat foods by keeping them away from each other.
3. Cook: Bacteria that causes food poisoning multiplies quickest between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a food thermometer to ensure food is cooked thoroughly.
4. Chill: Bacteria can grow in perishable foods within two hours (or one hour during hot summer days). Refrigerate foods promptly and properly.