If you are reading this article the old-fashioned way, that is, via a printed page, chances are you are not at a great risk of getting exposed to SARS-CoV-2 by doing so. However that risk is not zero. There are a number of factors that come into play that reduce the probability of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. For example, the nature of the materials used, the inks and paper, tend to not provide much of a haven for a virus; and much of the magazine production process itself, the heat and relative lack of human touch, tends to further mitigate such a risk to a very low level (but not to zero).

But then the magazine has to get to your place of business, and then arrive at your desk. Chances are that at least two or three persons handle your magazine before it gets to you, and each person becomes a potential source that is capable of spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So even though the chances are very low that you are being exposed to the virus by reading this piece, the risk is not zero. It never is.

Let’s look at food safety in a similar way. Because food is so central to human existence, we have had a long time to learn what we can and cannot eat and what we must treat before we eat, although this knowledge is not always used in practice. All of our food safety rules and food processing steps deal with the mitigation of potential exposure to microbial and other pathogenic organisms in the foods we eat. Consider all the different traditional means for preservation that were developed for high-risk foods; these involved the use of dehydration, curing with salts, smoking, acidity, high sugar, vacuum, canning, etc. All these mechanisms are utilized at the front end to preserve and extend the shelf life and reduce the risk of contamination. But this means of risk reduction does not end here. Once the food product is brought home, other measures are needed that involve practices such as keeping raw meats (especially chicken) separate from commonly used surfaces or ensuring that they are cleaned before and after.

While still not fully implemented, thanks to the approaches emphasized in the 2017 revision of ISO/IEC 17025 and the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food safety and risk-based thinking have come into sharper focus. FSMA mandated the establishment of a list of “high-risk” foods as well as additional recordkeeping requirements to improve traceability of such foods during a foodborne illness outbreak. Unfortunately, this process is not as easy or straightforward as it seems. Most of the current criteria for defining high-risk foods still emphasizes historical food safety data. Two examples come to mind that may push FDA to modify the list in response to the emergence of new food safety issues in a previously “safe” product.

First, peanut butter was previously considered a “safe” product, but the risk of Salmonella (and sometimes Listeria) in the product has been clearly established by recent foodborne illness outbreaks. Second, considering recent outbreaks linked to leafy greens, several consumer groups petitioned FDA to designate leafy greens as “high-risk” foods and to impose more stringent recordkeeping requirements for all fresh produce. In March 2020, FDA responded by releasing a 2020 Action Plan to Help Advance the Safety of Leafy Greens. With this is movement toward technology like next gen sequencing for obtaining a facility’s “microbial profile.” This would help ensure the appropriate resources are focused on the largest risks.

Whether talking COVID-19, food safety, or other risk, people’s attitudes also seem to differ based on their own risk awareness and their degree of risk aversion. As seen from the graphic on page 10, this creates at least four groups that look at risk differently: Settlers, Pioneers, Gophers, and Cowboys.

  • The Settlers know that there are risks and do not want to take chances, making them both risk aware and risk averse. They will follow all of the instructions and remain diligent in reducing food risk.
  • Completely opposite Settlers is the group we call Cowboys. This group acts impulsively and doesn’t think (or care) about risk; they are the oblivious risk takers; they are the type who don’t worry about or practice safe food handling, may undercook foods, and may just wipe their hands instead of washing after handling raw food products.

The other two groups, the Pioneers and Gophers, both manage to avoid food safety risks but through different approaches:

  • The Pioneers understand the dangers of food safety risks and take chances in a controlled and careful manner. They may prepare or eat a high-risk food but do so being mindful of the dangers.
  • The Gophers, like the Settlers, avoid food safety risks but through dumb luck, as they are neither aware of the dangers nor willing to take any risks. We have all known those whose menu was limited to a few regular items and were unwilling to consume any foods that they did not grow up with.

Technology has the means to help reduce food safety risks. The difficulty is getting the consumer to feel safe with that food. Gamma irradiation is a technology that has long been proven at killing pathogens, and while the types of foods that it could be used on at present is broad, it seems like its primary use is on spices and herbs such as pepper, garlic, and onion, and flavorings such as broccoli powder and carrot powder. Probably the word radiation does not help it.

Another technology that seems to have promise and avoids traditional heating methods for preservation of products treated in a can or bottle may be high-pressure processing. Currently this method is successfully applied on a commercial scale for pasteurization of a range of food products, such as fruit juices, guacamole, oysters, and ham. Both of these technologies, as well as many others, could go a long way to advance our food safety risk appetite and can go far beyond the tradition preservative techniques and handling practices.

Roger Brauninger Technical Training Consultant A2LA WorkPlace Training