Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Sharing information about food safety

Food safety depends on both market incentives and government regulation.  If consumers and intermediaries (such as supermarkets) knew more about the safety of different food categories and food producers, they would be better able to defend their own interests in the marketplace.  Without such information, strong government oversight is essential.

This blog post is about two kinds of food safety information: the first has recently been in the news, and I think the second has not been covered much in the news.

Recent research on food safety priorities

First, the Emerging Pathogens Institute last week released estimates of the Top 10 riskiest food/pathogen combinations. The riskiest food category was poultry, with annual estimated costs of $2.46 billion and 180 deaths. The riskiest food/pathogen combination was campylobacter in poultry, with annual costs of $1.26 billion and 55 deaths. Salmonella in poultry had annual costs of $0.71 billion and 81 deaths.

The Institute discussed implications for the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
Salmonella causes more disease burden than any other foodborne pathogen, and according to FoodNet surveillance data, is one of the few foodborne pathogens that has not significantly declined over the past 10 years....  Our analysis also shows Salmonella disease burden as being associated with a wide variety of foods regulated by both FSIS and FDA, with significant risks associated with poultry, produce and eggs. This suggests that reduction of the national burden of salmonellosis will require a coordinated effort by both agencies addressing a broad array of foods. We recommend the agencies convene a national cross-agency initiative in collaboration with CDC that looks across the entire food system to target opportunities for risk reduction.
FSIS data on salmonella in particular food plants

In recent years, FSIS has begun to make public information about particular poultry plants where random samples tested positive for salmonella.  I am still learning to read and interpret these reports.  I think the major media may be having similar difficulties, because I do not know that these reports get any media coverage.

FSIS provides three categories: Category 1 is good, Category 2 is intermediate, and Category 3 is the worst category (for poultry plants that failed at least one recent test and did not do very well on a second test either).

For example, in the most recent report on Category 3 establishments (.pdf), the Tyson Foods plant in Temperanceville, VA, nearly failed one test (more than 10% of samples had salmonella) and then failed a second test (more than 20% of samples had salmonella).  In 2010, according to the most recent FSIS annual progress report, only 5 plants out of 172 did poorly enough to fall into this Category 3 status, so clearly most poultry plants find the FSIS criteria to be a reasonable standard to achieve.

Economists see many food safety problems as a type of information failure.  If consumers and institutional buyers only had good information, market incentives would solve many food safety problems.  So, I find these FSIS reports intriguing, but I see them as a promising work in progress.

Can anybody tell me if I interpreted the reports correctly?  Has there been any media coverage at all of these reports?  What would it take to make this type of information a major factor in food safety improvement?

Update May 9, 2011:  First, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has just this year updated the Salmonella standards discussed in this blog post and established new standards in the same spirit for another pathogen, Campylobacter. Second, a 2009 report from USDA's Economic Research Service suggests that better information sharing could lead to stronger market incentives for food safety protection:
The forces driving management-determined actions lead to the conclusion that USDA’s FSIS could increase incentives by providing consumers and buyers with more information about the meat and poultry food safety control of particular plants and fi rms. USDA’s FSIS records plant performance on Salmonella spp. tests and noncompliance with process regulations. Making this information public should encourage greater food safety investments by meat and poultry producers.

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