Maintaining up-to-date knowledge on industry guidelines and developing a strong quality processing system add to the pressures faced by food processors in the current climate of high input costs, claim US food safety consultants.
The global sourcing of ingredients and products along with recent factory recalls has led to increased calls from consumers for more rigorous safety programmes and close monitoring of suppliers. Debra Harrison, chief consultant at Harrison Consulting, told FoodProductionDaily.com that keeping up with guidelines, especially for globally based companies, can be very time consuming and with companies running leaner and budgets tighter, the drive to cut costs while ensuring safety is difficult. The group said that it offers assistance to US and European food processors of all sizes that need to become familiar with industry guidelines or that need an on-site technical expert for a season. "Many growers and processors find programmes required by industry guidelines and customer requirements overwhelming. We specialize in working with them to set up systems that will be easy to use while meeting consumer and industry expectations," claims Harrison. Risk management She said that the group can assist processors to identify and manage risk at their processing facilities, distribution centres and suppliers through the development of standard operating procedures, supplier assessment and employee training. "We can serve as a coordinator for companies who need someone to lead their team through the process of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan development, review and implementation. Our goal is to provide the assurance of effective, safe quality monitoring systems to all clients," said Harrison. . She added that all Harrison Consulting employees are Certified Quality Auditors (CQA) and Certified HACCP Auditors (CHA) and can work with food manufacturers to develop a managed portfolio in the format of required documents, simple procedure outlines and detailed monitoring sheets. Criticism of regulations Meanwhile, last week consumer rights group Food and Water Watch warned that the consolidation of food safety systems into a form of 'one-size-fits-all' regulation may undermine hygienic manufacturing. Wenonah Hauter, group executive director, told FoodProductionDaily.com that current global safety regulations, while well intentioned, are best suited to the needs of large industrialised producers at the expense of smaller groups. The group expressed particular concerns over origin labelling and hygiene policies that it claims are creating a food safety divide between more industrialised manufacturers and smaller businesses. Despite these claims, health authorities in both the US and Europe believe the system is sufficiently flexible and yet concise enough to ensure that all manufacturers using the policies are meeting their commitments. The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is responsible for assessing risk within the country's food industry, said that the HACCP regulations are designed to be flexible depending on the size of individual manufacturers to ensure no discrepancy in protection. However, using a recent US salmonellosis outbreak linked to tomatoes sourced from Mexico and Texas as an example, Hauter said that the scare served to highlight the need for global food makers and regulators to rethink how they manufacture. FDA measures In November 2007, the US government announced wide sweeping plans to improve the safety of the food supply in the US, with measures including more stringent inspections, stronger penalties and mandatory recalls. The Food Protection Plan and the Import Safety Action Plan emerged as part of this. These two plans aim to prevent contamination in the domestic food chain and to ensure the safety of imported food. Under the Food Protection Plan, FDA will also be able to issue additional preventive controls for high-risk foods, accredit third parties for voluntary food inspections, increase access to food records during emergencies, and issue a mandatory recall if voluntary recalls are not effective. The Import Safety Action Plan comprises short- and long-term recommendations to enhance the safety of the increasing volume of imports entering the US. Among the measures outlined by the plan is the creation of a stronger certification process in exporting countries, a greater US presence overseas, and stronger penalties for those responsible for selling unsafe products. Funding However, at the heart of the food safety issue in the US is the problem of funding. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach addressed this problem earlier this year during a speech given to the National Press Club. "It is no secret in Washington that as the FDA's responsibilities have grown, the resources devoted to them have not kept pace," said Eschenbach. "Strengthening the FDA for this new century will require an investment, providing our agency with a budget and authorities that are commensurate with the scale and scope of our mission," he added.