Held at the enormous Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in the tulip-covered Chicago suburb of Rosemont, IL, the 2018 Food Safety Summit was occasionally informative, good for networking, self-reverential as hell, and oddly subdued – perhaps because the bulk of attendees consider ‘food safety’ a cost burden rather than an aspiration. A summit-opening discussion about lessons learned from supply chain recalls, a rousing talk by a VP at Amazon, Carletta Ooton, an unintentionally revealing presentation by Patrick Quade of iwaspoisoned.com and a massive exhibit hall displaying nearly 200 ‘food safety solutions’ were the highlights.
First up: An opening session called ‘Food Safety Case Studies Impact on the Supply Chain: Lessons Learned’. The first speaker was Matthew Wise of the CDC to discuss the history of the 2017 Maradol papaya salmonella outbreak and recall. In May of last year, federal officials and Maryland’s health department issued a warning about salmonella contamination of yellow Maradol papayas that had caused one death and made at least 46 others sick (apparently from a single Maryland grocery store). By July the number of sickened had risen to 173 and had spread across 21 states.
Very much a buttoned-down presenter, an obvious pride came through Matthew’s voice as he laid out a specific timeline of the CDC and FDA's investigations and described how the CDC used whole genome sequencing (WGS) to obtain the genetic fingerprints of the salmonella strains. In September WGS revealed pathogens found on papayas from the grocery store matched those that infected outbreak victims. On November 3 the outbreak was declared over, the contaminated papayas traced to four different farms in Mexico. Matthew noted an unexpected observation from the research: small outbreaks occur ‘all the time’, he said, but in the case of the Maradol papaya salmonella outbreak, they were only discovered because ‘we were looking harder’.
The next presentation – Crisis Management Recap – didn’t involve an outbreak, but rather the difficulties of following up the discovery of an anomaly by an eagle-eyed worker. Kathleen O’Donnell Cahill of Wegmans supermarkets and Natalie Kreher – a ‘fourth-generation egg farmer’ – of Kreher Family Farm described the post-Thanksgiving events of November 2016 as if they’d happened last week: a worker spots foreign residue on styrofoam containers; on Saturday two cartons are put on hold; two days later the carton supplier says it’s ‘no big deal’ and ‘probably potato dust’; on Wednesday the supplier does its own testing but reports finding nothing; on Friday morning the supplier emails Kreher that whatever was found ‘must have gotten there via transport’ but later that same day reports the ‘ingredient’ in fact came from invisible ink sprayed on cartons.
Kathleen noted Wegmans reached out for toxicology advice while Natalie continually voiced frustration with the carton supplier. By Saturday all eggs from this supplier were put on hold and two million additional egg cartons were sent out to stores, leaving little room for anything else in many store coolers. On Tuesday toxicology results came in: negligible health risk, the FDA and USDA signed off, and the eggs were put on sale at Wegmans stores. It was interesting to hear the dynamic between a supplier and retailer, both of whom represent family businesses, struggling with a third party they believed dropped the ball throughout the eight days of tracing the specifics of barely noticeable dust spotted by a Kreher Family Farm employee.
Oscar Garrison of United Egg Producers followed with a florid overview of the 2017 fipronil contamination of European egg products. Normally used on dogs and cats (‘when you can put three drops on a dog’s butt, you’re gonna have residue’ was Oscar’s description of fipronil’s potential to contaminate) the insecticide was used to treat red mites, the ‘bed bugs of the henhouse’ in Oscar’s words, in the Netherlands, leading to the recall of ’20 million egg shells’ across Europe. Oscar pointed out that the US was ‘very lucky’ to have avoided fipronil-contaminated products reaching its supermarket shelves, and highlighted the risks of ‘newer operators’ and ‘lack of control’ as cage-free hens become the norm.
Shawn Stevens from the Food Industry Counsel spoke next about liabilities across the supply chain. I posted on Twitter that food producers shuddered when he mentioned the name of famed foodborne illness attorney Bill Marler, but they seemed in tune with Shawn’s message. Most nodded in recognition as the energetic attorney said food companies continue to be harmed by mistaken presumptions of supply chain safety, asking, ‘Would you buy a used car over the phone? Why would you buy food from a supplier without visiting their facilities?’ He also noted that globalisation leads to decreased supply chain transparency and increased risk, and that US food companies sued for selling contaminated products may not always be able to seek recovery from foreign suppliers.
All of the speakers then fanned out to far corners of the large room to take questions. Moderator Craig Henry repeatedly pointed out that this was meant to be an ‘interactive’ discussion, even though all speakers had interesting stories to tell and an audience happy to listen. Craig's exuberance clearly irked Natalie of Kreher Family Farm as he practically coerced her into joining a discussion about recalls. Plain-spoken VP of Quality Assurance and Food Safety of Costco Wholesale Craig Wilson got a round of applause when he asked the room, 'Did we hear anyone mention the consumer? We've been talking for three hours and no one's said the word 'consumer'.' It was interesting to watch the room's temperature go hot and cold. At one point a food producer asked the speakers, 'What is the threshold to act?' Slowly, one by one other audience members stood up and responded to the man's question indirectly by advocating initiative on the part of food producers instead of waiting for regulators to step in.
Someone put it best just as the session ended: If you look, you might find. Are you then willing to act?