Gale Prince: "Food safety is a journey"

Gale Prince

Food safety pioneer Gale Prince, the “Dean of safety recalls,” addressed a room full of food scientists at our local Cactus International Food Technologists (Cactus IFT) chapter dinner at the Fiesta Resort conference center in Tempe, Arizona. He spoke about food recall trends, how to enhance food safety progam, and gave us some details on the proposed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

He began his talk by introducing us to the growing number of recalls in the United States. “Food safety has become a frequent topic for the media,” he said. If you look at a 20-year trend, reccalls at retail have increased exponentially. Gail shared a graph of the trend and also details a few examples he’s been involved with over the years.

The USDA has had a number of meat recalls, which Prince shows us picks up during the summer months of May through August. He says it is partly due to people cooking outside (such as at 4th of July) on the grill, who often leave their meat out or undercook their meat.

When you look at all the recalls of FDA, you also see the recalls going up, Prince said. He showed us a graph that showed that there were ove 8,000 just in the last year.

From 2004 to 2009 looking at class of recalls, most were class 1 due to salmonella problems. “Salmonella is a real challenge,” Prince said.

There are three instances that accounted for 55 percent of food recalls in 2009.

– peanut paste
– powdered milk
– pistachios

Of all the recalls:

– 10 percent did not have a code – “this is like suicide for a company,” Prince said.
– 51 percent involved multiple codes

Major Contributors

The major issues that generated recalls in 2009 were due to microbiological problems, allergens, mislabeling, foreign material (mainly plastic), chemical contamination, and inadequate processing.

Prince gave some advice in each of these areas. He tells the story of how Chinese honey is sometimes tainted with an antibiotic that is not allowed in the United States. The Chinese know that so they send to a different country to be relabeled as coming from that country.

Do recalls always happen late Friday afternoon? He has a theory that this is because manufacturers procrastinate to do it until the end of the week, which is a nightmare for the retailer. In addition, if you are a public company you need to inform the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) befoe you do the product recall, so companies often wait until thd market closes on Friday to do it.

New food vehicles identified in multistate outbreaks since 2006 are surprising like salmonella peanut butter despite lack of moisture, spinach and broccoli, carrot juice, hot peppers, pepper (salmonella can be in pepper for years), raw cookie dough, raw pistachios, and dog food.

What are the major contributing factors of recent recalls? Mostly, it’s non-compliance with current Good Manufacturing Practices, failure to maintain food manufacturing facilities and equipment, non-compliant with a company’s own Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and weaknesses in HACCP analysis.

Another factor is management responsibility for food safety for their products, for operations, for supply chain, etc. We’re dealing with a global food ingredient procurement complexity these days, Prince said. It is much more difficult to manage.

He told the story of the infant formula recall that ended up leading to stores in cities of China not containing any infant formula, all due to melamine by some greedy businessmen who tainted their products.

When we see recalls of imported items, it is typically due to particular ingredients including milk powder. Food import problems include filth, production under unsanitary conditions, pesticide residues or use of approved pesticides, chemical contamination, or economic adulteration.

“There’s a rough guess that 8 percent of food on the market is economically adulterated,” he said.

Still, the biggest problem is simply salmonella. He showed us a slide of the variety of import alerts that are related to salmonella.

Recalls are also becoming more massive and expensive over time. The big peanut butter recall was a loss of over a year’s worth of peanut butter. Ere is also a large legal impact coming from complaints. For example, the recall of 30,000,000 toys led to a hugely expensive settlement ($50 million).

“For those of you in the room in quality assurance, how would you like a new boss?” Prince asked. In these cases, when the government comes in, the government becomes your boss.

When you consider the economics of food safety, consider the loss of business, cost of loss of brand value, litigation, etc.

So, why the increase in all these cases?

– we concentrated our food production
– increased batch size
– product changes
– changes in food distribution
– consumer has changed
– science has changed (we’re looking on ppb, versus ppt and ppm)
– epidemiology (the CDC plots info from food net surveillence trends in different parts of the country about salmonella, listeria, etc)

Salmonella is a serious problem. “When you look at what we’ve gone through as far as recalls, we’re being bombarded from salmonella from everywhere around the world,” Prince said.

The salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria outbreaks causes several fatalities when they occur.

The CDC uses the Pulse Net Database to track patterns, as in states, and has put together an outbreak team. In 2004, there was an outbreak in Tennessee that had outbreaks that the CDC tracked. They did a food history and through new technology was able to pin down peanut butter as the culprit of salmonella.

Then, peanut paste came along, which was more extensive because it was all over the country. “If it wasn’t for Pulse Net they could’ve missed it,” Prince said.


What about traceability? Methods of traceability need to be improved. What Prince found is that most of the time traceability records were handwritten, which don’t lend well to transferring electronically. Even a small accounting program or Excel spreadsheet would improve traceability.

Basically, traceability should include:

– Firm identification
– Product identification
– product coding, time code, etc.

Electronic traceability can have readable bar codes, tracking lot codes, shipping codes, etc.
“A good traceability program protects your business and provides a tool for managing supply chain,” Prince said.
How do consumers see food safety? You can see that it’s a big issue when you look at headlines of the melamine scandal, peanut butter recall, and so on. The data are clear: It’s worth investing into food safety.

Consumers are largely concerned about germs, bacteria, pesticide residues (although not so much in this country), and terrorism. According to a Gallup poll, 29% felt recalls were serious concefn, 55 pecent would switch brands temporarily, 21% said would not purchase from company again. “Tell that to your sales department,” Prince said. The changes in food purchasing is clear by sales shown in peanut butter and spinach well after a recall.

Don’t forget social media, Prince warned. Monitor it well, because consumers are incredibly vocal, more than ever through these avenues.

Take Aways?

-Comply with GMPs
-Know your products
-Know your supply chain
-Know your process
-Audit your QC records (it’s very educational)
-Maintain facility and equipment in sanitary manner
-Develop a food safety culture in your operation

FDA Food Safety Modernization Act

Prince then discussed the proposed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which is having troubles in the House currently. What will happen to it, is not known. Funding is an issue, along with other problems. These are the highlights:

-registration of facilities
-performance standards
-hazard analysis
-record access
-product traceability
-lab accreditation
-mandatory recall authority
-accreditation of 3rd party auditors (related to imports)

“If the bill is not passed before Christmas, the bill is dead and will need to be reintroduced in the new congress,” he said.
Prince said that complacency is often a problem with food companies when it comes to food safety. “Are you taking things for granted,” he said.
He gave these examples of companies, the first that went out of business, who offered up excuses.

– “We have been in business for 67 years and we have never had a problem.”
– “We’ve always done it like that and it has never been a problem.”
– “The inspector didn’t say anything about that being a problem.”

In summary, Prince said that companies must look to food safety as a majof focus of their business, to develop a culture of food safety, and to never become complacent.

“Food safety is a journey,” he said.


Amusingly, someone asked Prince what foods he avoids for sure. He said sprouts and raw oysters. He added, “The safest food is a hamburger.”

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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