This article provides an overview of food safety, from the ranch to the restaurant, for attorneys who may be involved in food contamination disputes. Topics covered include government regulations and industry standards and guidelines that are generally applicable in the food industry.
Veterinary expertise is critical to the evaluation of food safety. A safe meat, milk, or poultry product relies upon the health of the animals supplying our food safety system. Veterinary experts are uniquely suited to evaluate:
Biological hazards such as viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens can be introduced through multiple sources into the food supply chain at the animal level. These can include lapses in biosecurity practices or deliberate acts of bioterrorism, inadequate medical treatment, or contaminated animal feed. Veterinary experts can assist in the analysis of foodborne illness outbreaks to help determine whether pathogens were introduced antemortem (before death), postmortem, or during the processing of animal products at slaughter or processing plants.
When involved early in the investigation of an incident, veterinary experts can also assist with targeted testing of live animals, processing facilities, animal products, transport vehicles, or postmortem organ or tissue samples. Targeted testing based upon veterinary scientific methodology yields reproducible and reliable results, and this approach can help with cost management during an investigation.
The public has a reasonable expectation that animals produced for food will be raised, handled, transported, and processed in accordance with the established standards of humane treatment. Veterinary experts are trained to evaluate the handling, transport, and slaughter of animals to assess adherence to the appropriate standards of care. During an investigation, veterinary experts are frequently asked to review transport conditions or videos of animal handling, and assess humane slaughter methods. These investigations are highly sensitive and require appropriate expertise.
In the flow of food, most food products will pass through a facility to be processed, packaged, and shipped. If a suspected hazard occurs during the manufacturing and processing steps, a food safety expert can analyze and investigate the steps that take place during this stage of the process. An experienced manufacturing/processing food safety and quality assurance professional can determine if established government and industry standards were followed to ensure the safe and proper processing of food for human consumption.
A food processing facility should have a robust Food Safety Plan in place to address the safety of finished food products made at the facility. The Food Safety Plan for each facility should specifically address the potential risks associated with every facet of production from farm/suppliers to processing, including sanitation and other factors that could compromise the safety of the finished food products.
For processing facilities, the benchmark food safety management system used in the industry is known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), which is part of a Food Safety Plan. When a facility develops its HACCP Plan, it should be tailored to encompass the risks associated with the processing of the foods at the respective facility from which the products are sourced.
A thorough Hazard Analysis (HA) should be completed to identify the specific food safety hazards inherent to the products at the facility. Once these risks are identified, then Critical Control Points (CCPs) in the process are established. These CCPs identify opportunities where risk(s) can be controlled, mitigated, or prevented. Importantly, these points also define limits or targets, called Critical Control Limits, that are related to acceptable time, temperatures, microbiological testing results, equipment settings, and food safety device boundaries.
While analyzing a case involving the potential introduction of contaminant hazards into the food supply, a manufacturing food safety professional can evaluate Food Safety Plans and HACCP programs for effectiveness regarding the risks associated with the hazards of manufacturing particular types of finished food products. Documentation that such programs are followed and monitored by facility management and implemented into effective employee training programs provide indicators of whether the standard of care is being met through facility food safety programs.
Along the flow of food, retail markets and food service professionals are often the last stage before food reaches the consumer. These professionals are responsible for ensuring that food is kept safe and free of contamination hazards, this process starts with ensuring products are purchased from reputable suppliers.
Foods or food products may be safe when they leave the distributors. By the time foods reach their final destination, however, they can be unsafe to receive. Both delivery trucks and the actual food shipments should be inspected, particularly noting the maintenance of appropriate food temperatures ranges during shipping, the integrity of shipping containers, and the absence of damaged or spoiled food. While this takes time, it is paramount to ensuring the restaurant (or other facility) received food safe for consumption.
Upon receipt, food storage and preparation areas should be kept clean, dry, and free of contaminants that could introduce chemical or biological hazards that would increase the risk of exposure to dangerous food. Storage and preparation are also vulnerable to cross-contamination and time-temperature abuse. Hazard reduction strategies include adopting a first-in, first-out (FIFO) method for rotation, and ensuring equipment and workstations are cleaned and sanitized.
Preparing food in small batches helps reduce the risk that ingredients will be exposed to room temperature for long periods of time. Once a batch is prepared, returning it to the refrigerator or immediately cooking to the proper temperature also reduces the risk to exposure of food-based hazards.
Many restaurants hold prepared or cooked food for a period of time on the main cooking line or on a buffet prior to serving. Restaurants should perform random temperature checks of these foods to ensure items have not fallen below their respective safe temperature range.
Finally, kitchen and serving staff should avoid bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food, which can be accomplished by using single-use gloves. During delivery to customers, plates should be held by the outer edge or from the bottom. Glasses should be held by their stem, middle, or base.
There are many stages along the flow of food at restaurants, from bulk purchasing to service, that are vulnerable to contamination and time-temperature abuse. If food contamination occurs, experts specializing in food and beverage operations can assist in investigating the complex and overlapping issues present in restaurants or other food service venues.
Regardless of where in the process contamination is suspected, Robson Forensic has the veterinary, manufacturing and processing, and food and beverage service experts that can aid in investigations from any point within the system.
Submit an inquiry to discuss your case with an expert.