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48 Million. That’s one in 6 of us who get sick each year from foodborne illness.  Unsafe food handling practices at a local salad bar has the potential to impact hundreds. Lapses early on in the supply chain can result in harmful products landing on grocery store shelves, impacting millions. In April, Over 2 million eggs produced by a farm in Indiana were recalled and food safety experts are still scratching their heads wondering how ritz crackers and goldfish could be contaminated with…salmonella?! (Flavor agents sprayed on the products after heating could explain the contamination.)

For the past decade, The Center for Food Integrity has been gathering insights into consumer perceptions of how food is produced and processed. A 2018 report, by the same organization found there is a “trust deficit” that exists between consumers and food companies, federal regulators and farmers. Only 33% of survey respondents said they “strongly agree” that they are confident in the safety of the food they eat, compared to 47% in 2017.”

Food companies are considered by consumers one of the primary groups responsible for the public’s safety (along with regulatory agencies and farmers).  One critical mis-step in the procurement, production, or service steps of their process could result in serious public health compromise, loss of brand loyalty and the demise of the company. A multi-disciplinary collaboration that includes all stakeholders, including food producers, processors, scientists and tech companies is required.  Solutions must be developed in response to the mounting threats to human health and consumer concern related to unsafe food.

Foodborne Illness – The Stats

The CDC recently released its annual report on the impact of contaminated foods and related outbreaks (defined as more than 1 person getting sick from the same source) between 2009-2015. There were 5760 reported cases resulting in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths. The two most common organisms related to the outbreaks were salmonella (41%) and Norovirus (35%), aka “Cruise-ship Sickness.”

Chicken appears to be the top carrier for these organisms, but pork products, seeded vegetables (beans, tomatoes), dairy, eggs, fruit and beef also rank high on the list.  While these are the most common ingredient targets, recent outbreaks highlight that few foods go without risk. The recent incident involving romaine lettuce is a good example. The e.coli outbreak was traced back to contaminated water that affected several farms in the Yuma, AZ area.  The outbreak spanned 36 states, with 210 infections, 96 hospitalizations and 5 deaths.

Safe Food Handling Practices

While supply chain issues such as the case involving Romaine lettuce are more difficult to control, foodborne illness is often preventable. The USDA publishes the U.S. Food Code providing local and state regulatory agencies with a science-based framework for monitoring retail and food service establishments.  The Food Code forms the basis for the standard operating procedures that dictate how food service operations are run along with documentation that ensures accountability. Some of the most basic food safety standards for commercial kitchens are:

  1. HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plans in place.  HACCP plans control for hazards in the environment and critical points in the flow of food where risk for time/temperature abuses are high.
  2. Personal hygiene standards for foodservice workers. Not surprisingly, one of the strongest defenses against cross-contamination of harmful bacteria is handwashing.  This simple practice done consistently could reduce foodborne illness by as much as 50%!
  3. Vendor supplier approval processes: This is an important step for foodservice operators.  Following a formal vetting process ensures suppliers are following safe-food handling procedures and ingredients can be traced at all points along the supply chain.

How Can Technology Advance Food Safety?

The WSJ reportssafety gaps in the way food is processed, manufactured and packaged, as microbes, such as listeria and salmonella, contaminate more foods.”  Despite the regulatory agencies responsible for overseeing food production, the significant rise in incidents of foodborne illness tells us that more must be done. How then might technology help us?

One major technological advancement includes Blockchain technology. IBM, Walmart and JD.Com have recently announced a Blockchain Food Safety Alliance.  Information on the flow of food through the supply chain will be gathered and tracked in a database allowing for increased transparency, accountability and traceability.  This will inevitably result in improved safety practices among food suppliers and producers.

Other major advancements are being made in robotics technology.  According to Technomic, an analyst firm, digital technology will “slowly, over time, create efficiency and labor savings” for restaurants.  Salad production and salad bars are an excellent food service focus area for robots, as their preparation involves extensive handling and use of uncooked ingredients making them particularly vulnerable to microbial contamination. Robots may be especially relevant in schools, hospitals and senior living facilities where foodservice operators serve populations at especially high risk for foodborne illness.

Chowbotics Paves The Way For Foodservice Robots

Sally, the robot, is a vending machine that serves salads, snacks, and grain bowls using fresh ingredients.  Besides offering healthy, fast and convenient food, one of Sally’s key differentiators makes her a strong competitor of typical salad bars.  

  1. Each of the 22 ingredients Sally dispenses are held in separate canisters within the machine, protecting them from human contact, thus minimizing the opportunity for cross-contamination.
  2. The canisters are nearly airtight which ensures quality and freshness.
  3. Sally maintains an internal temp of 38 degrees at all times.  If temperatures should rise above 40 degrees for any reason (e.g. Sally’s front door is open in order to re-stock ingredients) an alert is sent immediately to the operator.  The machine will disable, ensuring ingredients do not dispense to customers until temperatures return to safe levels.
  4. Time and temperature are logged every 15 minutes, for effortless record keeping.

Foodborne illness is a major public health concern, however one that is largely preventable.  Steps must be taken to ensure food is kept safe throughout the supply chain which includes safe food handling practices by workers.  Major advances in technology can help fill the existing gaps in foodservice operations that will significantly mitigate the risks associated with foodborne illness outbreaks.