Increased regulation in food safety is coming regardless of the results of the midterm elections, a panel of experts told an audience at Pack Expo on Election Day (Nov. 2). More...

Increased regulation in food safety is coming regardless of the results of the midterm elections, a panel of experts told an audience at Pack Expo on Election Day (Nov. 2).

The upcoming lame-duck session of Congress will see an up-or-down vote on the Senate version of the food safety bill, without an attempt to reconcile with the House version, said Joe Levitt, a partner with consulting firm Hogan Lovels and a longtime employee of the Food and Drug Administration. But if the Senate bill is defeated, increased food safety regulation will come anyway, Levitt said: “FDA will do administratively, under the existing statute, what the new statute was intended to do....This is an area in which the law is, in many ways, catching up with leading practices in the industry.”

Even without a new food safety bill, the food industry will have to institute certain measures, including: a critical-control-point program for non-meat plants similar to the HACCP (hazard analysis of critical control points) program now mandated at meat plants; modernization of good manufacturing practices (GMPs); and expanded authority for the FDA, including the power to recall contaminated product.

The panel discussed a range of topics on food safety, from detection technology to the biggest safety challenges presented by packaging.

Brent Brehmer, manager of regulatory compliance and HACCP for Hormel Foods, said that the number of food recalls have increased greatly, especially due to salmonella and other pathogens. It’s not because food is more dangerous, but because detection technology has become more sophisticated. With communications through FoodNet and PulseNet, national networks can identify and match pathogens through their DNA profile, allowing health investigators to quickly trace contamination to its source.

“Are we making less safe food today than we did years ago? I don’t think so,” Brehmer said. “I think we’re making food as safe now as we’ve ever made it. But science is catching up with us.”

Matilda Freund, senior director for food safety at Kraft Foods, says Kraft tries to “design out” as many hazards as possible when putting together a production process for a new product. The remaining hazards are then managed through a HACCP-style program. In some cases, Kraft has to reject product ideas because they carry too much inherent risk.

“We have one marketing group in Italy that is constantly coming up with these great-tasting meals that they just prepared in the kitchen, and they want to know why we can’t make those with a 20-day shelf life and a large distribution,” Freund said. “I think you have to be realistic in what you manufacture.”

Asked about packaging-related hazards in particular, Freund cited packaging that doesn’t stay closed when it should, and packaging mistakes that lead to failure to declare allergens.

Leavitt agreed, calling allergens “a sleeper issue” that is currently getting less attention than pathogens. “Once pathogen control starts dying down a little bit, there will be an increased emphasis on allergen control,” he said.