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A popular food chain shows importance of food safety

Organic foods are introducing unique challenges to the supply chain.
/ Industry News & Trends /

By: Phil Sneed

According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness every year, as individuals typically contract them from eating contaminated food. The CDC stressed that most foodborne diseases are not part of an organized outbreak.

To prevent more illnesses from developing, the government passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. In the year before it was passed, the CDC counted 1,527 foodborne disease outbreaks, with 4 percent resulting in hospitalization.

Chipotle is perhaps linked with the most notable outbreak in recent memory, when hundreds of individuals across the country fell ill after eating at the popular burrito destination. After the company conducted an internal review, the fast casual restaurant found issues within its supply chain.

"48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness every year."

Because of consumers' changing habits, more restaurants and food establishments are incorporating fresh, organic and non genetically modified ingredients into their menus. While fresh ingredients are good for attracting business, food safety issues are being closely watched because the issues at Chipotle may occur elsewhere.

In light of the findings, and with upcoming dates for the Federal Drug Administration's final rule regarding human food, the transportation industry should be aware of best practices for handling food during travel.

Challenges await
Chipotle rose to its current popularity due in large part to its commitment to always use fresh ingredients from small and independent farmers. They further gained a following by promoting the fast casual experience. Customers could walk in, place an order and walk out with their food in relatively quickly, even though fresh ingredients may take longer to prepare.

It is that reliance on small farmers that led to the E. Coli outbreak during the summer of 2015 at various Chipotle restaurants. According to Bloomberg Business, the complex supply chain the company utilizes can often lead to food shortages and lingering questions about the safety of the ingredients.

In an interview with Bloomberg, brand consultant Allen Adamson said if supply chain issues aren't taken care of, long-term damage is a real possibility.

Food safety challenges
Contaminated ingredients all have an origin, and for restaurants that market freshness, that beginning is often with independent farmers. The growing demand for organic foods creates challenges for food establishments because there are more stringent regulations to comply with and the food has to be used in a certain amount of time before expiring. 

In a 2014 poll from Gallup, 45 percent of respondents seek out organic foods in their daily diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has enacted strict guidelines for food to be considered organic, but local and independent farmers may find difficulty complying with with those regulations.

The fast casual burrito restaurant itself also has strict standards, as evidenced when a pork supplier was preventing pigs from having adequate access to the outdoors.

Local and independent farmers may also lack the resources to keep up with the latest food safety standards, David Acheson, a former FDA official, told Bloomberg.

"They're small operators and you simply don't have the infrastructure and the capacity to keep up with this stuff," said Acheson.

Even if farmers are caught up on the latest standard, transportation is still a prominent part of the supply chain.

Best food handling practices
First and foremost, the rules regarding food transportation and sanitation should be studied and analyzed by every fleet. These rules contain important information regarding best practices and future rules and compliance dates.

Additionally, the FDA has compiled a list of common problem areas throughout the food supply chain.

Some of the biggest issues that have to be addressed are the improper uses of:

  • Refrigeration or temperature control
  • Packing of transportation units
  • Unloading practices, equipment and conditions

The following issues can also not be ignored, no matter how small they may seem:

  • Poor pest control
  • Poor employee hygiene
  • Inadequate transportation construction and unit design
  • Lack of or insufficient employee training

To remedy some of the issues, the FDA recommends fleets and other food handlers ensure every employee is properly trained, sanitation meets or exceeds requirements, temperature control is at an appropriate level and the correct packing materials are used.

"Challenges exist because of the growing demand for organic foods."

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the need for constant communication between all the parties involved in the supply chain: shipper, transporter and the receiver. 

Additionally, if a foodborne illness develops, issues within the supply chain will likely be revealed. Not only will the restaurant come under scrutiny, but so too will the company that loaded, transported and unloaded all of the food. 

As greater percentages of the population seek to eat more fresh foods, restaurants and food establishments are utilizing more small and independent farmers. However, local farmers don't always have the resources to comply with strict regulations to ensure food safety, and even if they do, transportation companies must also follow the guidelines to prevent foods from becoming contaminated.

With proper habits and open communication between all parties, the number of illnesses can be reduced.