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Ten food safety mistakes that could lead to a repeat of the romaine debacle

SAN ANTONIO — Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety at Cornell University, listed at a Viva Fresh education session ten mistakes he believes companies must avoid to prevent another situation like the recent string of outbreaks tied to romaine lettuce.

First, the industry cannot think the problem is contained to romaine and E. coli, Wiedmann said. All products should be subject to stringent food safety procedures.

Second, Wiedmann urged companies not to think that they are exempt from potential issues because they haven’t had any incidents yet.

“Don’t take past history as a guarantee that you’re not going to have a problem tomorrow, next week or next year,” Wiedmann said.

Third, he noted that food safety is complicated, so there is not one easy solution. Accepting that and being willing to dig into the details is critical for success.

Wiedmann also encouraged companies not to believe anecdotes about food safety effectiveness over science.


A related folly would be failing to understand the difference between verification — records that show food safety measures have been carried out — and validation, which means proving that your sanitation procedures are effective.

Validation shows “you’re doing something that will actually control the food safety hazard,” Wiedmann said.

“You’re not just doing something because we’ve always done it this way,” Wiedmann said. “You’re not just doing something because your neighbor does. You’re not just doing something because the food safety person you hired did the same thing in a previous job. No. You’re doing it because it’s working.”

Companies can validate their practices by disassembling their equipment each year and testing to see whether regular sanitation killed bacteria or whether it remained.

Wiedmann noted that ultimately food safety relies on people carrying out practices the right way. Getting a positive test — which may occasionally happen when samples are taken from areas like cracks and hard-to-reach areas — will generally mean more work.

“You have to find out where it came from, then you may have to remodel ... It’s going to cost you money,” Wiedmann said. “But if you sample on that nice, flat diamond board, after it’s cleaned and sanitized, you guarantee negative results, right? Do you think that happens?”

The alternative to finding and correcting issues, of course, is trouble down the line not just for an individual company but possibly for whole segments of the industry.

The sixth mistake Wiedmann called out is believing that food safety is something that the food safety people and the government are responsible for, Wiedmann said. Employees at all levels have to be on board with and vigilant about food safety.

Spot buys, traceability and near misses

Another error is spot buying from smaller operations whose procedures have not been vetted. If you do that, you contribute to the issue, Wiedmann said.

“You might have a good system to make sure your suppliers provide good product, but today you just need the product, you’re going to spot buy,” Wiedmann said. “Now you’ve got product in the stores, on your shelves, where you don’t know the history. That’s going to cause you problems.”

Failing to do “the obvious” well — electronic record-keeping and traceability — could be another fatal error, he noted.

Another mistake would be to do nothing after a “near miss,” or a scenario in which an issue is found but no illnesses are reported and no consequences occur.

Not finding out where the pathogen came from is not an option, Wiedmann said.

“Next time it’s not going to be a near miss,” he said. “Next time it’s going to be a hit.”

The last mistake a company needs to avoid when it comes to food safety is leadership not buying in, Wiedmann asserted.

“People need to do the right thing, and it’s hard, because with some of those things you see the dollar bills in the future because you know if you find a problem you have to fix it,” Wiedmann said.

One action leadership can take is to empower its food safety personnel.

“Make sure you have real, qualified food safety people on staff, and make sure they report straight up to the top,” Wiedmann said. “If food safety people report to operations, operations tells them, ‘Cut sanitation, we need to produce.’

“They need to have real power,” Wiedmann said. “Food safety people without power are not going to keep you out of the headlines, they’re not going to prevent the next romaine lettuce disaster from happening.”