Sanitation is critical at General Mills’ processing facilities with most cleaning during the third work shift. Environmental monitoring of the plant helps ensure pathogens are nonexistent. Salmonella is hard to kill in dry food formulations, Hood says. Even a low pathogen level can cause illness. The listeria monocytogenes pathogen can exist in wet food formulations.

“The reality is in today’s world the scrutiny of regulators and consumers is if listeria is present in the product it may be deemed adulterated,” Hood said.

Tremendous strides have been reached industry wide, he says, to track down sources of foodborne illnesses.

“Twenty years ago if two people got sick, one in California and one in Minnesota, there was no way to link the illnesses,” Hood explained. Foodborne illness findings were based on people who became sick at the same church picnic or buffet.

Advances in epidemiology, the study of health and illness patterns, have empowered programs including PulseNet to develop DNA fingerprinting of foodborne bacteria using pulse-field gel electrophoresis technology.

“Epidemiology is a very powerful tool,” Hood said.

The technology distinguishes organism strains including E. coli 0157:H7, salmonella, shigella listeria, and campylobacter. This enables health professionals to create and search databases for specific pathogen identification in the United States, even worldwide in the future.

Barry Eisenberg, United Fresh’s vice president of food safety services, discussed how the FDA Food Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January will impact agriculture. The law will take three years to implement.

The law, designed to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply, gives new powers to the Food and Drug Administration, including the authority to mandate a recall.

“It’s coming down the road; (the law) will change your life,” Eisenberg said. “As long as associations stay in contact with the government hopefully we’ll get something sensible to come out of it.” 

The FDA will prioritize food safety regulations based on the commodities deemed at the greatest risk of foodborne illness. Ranked high on FDA’s high risk list, Eisenberg says, are leafy greens, green onions, and tomatoes.

The law will require food processors and wholesalers to register with the FDA and submit a food safety plan, which Eisenberg explains most companies already have in place. He suggests submitting simple plans without much detail to the agency – just standard operating procedures.

The question is, how many teeth will the law actually have? Federal budget dollars to fund the new law were approved yet no funds have been released. Will the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives, all abuzz with talk of slashing federal spending, actually fund the food safety law?

“The mood right now in D.C. is not to put any new monies into different programs,” Eisenberg said.

The United Fresh executive says FDA jobs under the act would require new employees, not a shift of existing employees.