Federal laws push food safety stragglers to move forward

Fortifying existing federal food safety laws can keep producers – and those all along the supply chain – from lagging behind industry standards to protect consumers, economists show.

While many food associations and trade groups have offered voluntary adherence to agreed-upon safety standards, the power of law boosts the likelihood that the latest protocols will be followed, according to new Cornell research published Jan. 17 in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

“Laws like the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 – and its Produce Safety Rule – are needed because action in the industry alone has been generally insufficient to achieve significant food safety improvements,” said Aaron Adalja, assistant professor of food and beverage management in the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, who examined the food supply chain.

“With so many moving parts and so many individual, heterogeneous actors in the chain, not everyone is working in concert,” he said. “It becomes difficult to reduce foodborne disease outbreaks or food recalls.”

Consider packaged salads at grocery stores nationwide: Produce food safety faces unique challenges due to limited traceability at the farm level. The lettuce comes from different growers in different places, but it all ends up mixed into one bag. “If one grower does not meet the standards that all the other growers achieve, then all the growers suffer,” Adalja said. “The whole supply chain has to be coordinating.”

The Produce Safety Rule’s latest standards require regular testing of agricultural water quality, training for proper employee health and hygiene, and rules for amending soil with animal manure – sources of produce contamination.

Food safety protocols voluntarily adopted at the grower level by industry-based organizations had no discernable impact on the annual number of food recalls or foodborne disease outbreaks associated with their respective commodities, according to the paper.

Voluntary adoption of food safety guidelines by government-backed organizations – such as agricultural check-off programs – resulted in fewer recalls for pathogenic contamination. “We saw small improvements in some food safety outcomes,” Adalja said, “but not enough so that we could do without regulatory oversight.”

Original organizational food safety guidelines and federal laws are sometimes strikingly similar, Adalja said. “In the case of the Produce Safety Rule, federal law essentially codified existing standards developed by the produce industry,” he said. “So, my tip of the hat to industry, in that sense.”

In addition to Adalja, the research, “Collective Investment in a Common Pool Resource: Grower Associations and Food Safety Guidelines,” was co-authored by Erik Lichtenberg, professor, University of Maryland, and Elina T. Page, agricultural economist, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The research was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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