The conclusions of a pioneering survey from the University of Minnesota's Food Industry Center and Louisiana State University's AgCenter should come as a surprise to no one.
The deadly salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter made at a filthy Georgia processing plant has caused consumer confidence in the food supply to plummet. Just one in five Americans now believe the food supply is safer than it was a year ago, according to findings from the latest Continuous Consumer Food Safety/Defense Tracking Study (CFST). The study, funded by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the U, provides a valuable ongoing look at consumer concerns, expectations and perceptions. It's updated weekly -- unlike other surveys that swoop in occasionally on food issues.
Consumer confidence dipped last year with the outbreak of salmonella first linked to tomatoes but later tied to peppers. Confidence rebounded, the CFST found, only to nosedive to a new low with the peanut butter salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 500 and killed eight people, three of whom were Minnesotans. The findings should give the industry some food for thought. It's hard evidence that the peanut butter outbreak isn't simply the problem of one Georgia company. It has damaged the reputation of the entire food industry. Action is needed, lest the precipitous drop in peanut butter sales plague other products.
Recent developments in the peanut butter outbreak have pointed to critical areas for industry improvement. A New York Times story published earlier this month suggested major problems with the independent safety audit systems that the industry uses. Basically, companies providing audit services act as private inspectors. The president of the company that inspected the Georgia peanut plant -- AIB International -- told the paper that one of its inspectors gave the plant a "superior" rating. Another inspector said the plant met or exceeded expectations. Investigators since have documented slime, mold and roaches at the plant and ongoing problems with salmonella; the plant may have knowingly shipped product that tested positive for the bacteria. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently called for criminal prosecution of the plant's owners, and she's entirely correct. At the same time, the entire food industry needs to rapidly evaluate what went wrong with the auditing system and make changes so it doesn't happen again. Making audit reports public is one potential solution to improve accountability.
Another area that needs to be addressed is traceability. One reason that the peanut butter recall seems never-ending is that it's difficult to trace where commodity foods -- like large tubs of peanut butter used as ingredients in other foods -- have gone. Ideally, food safety officials would have issued one list of all affected foods and had stores and consumers clear them from shelves and pantries. They couldn't do that under the current system. Instead, officials have issued multiple updates as they've gone through the slow, laborious process of tracking the product's distribution. That's kept peanut butter recalls in the news, reinforcing consumers' negative attitudes about food safety. As the CFST data shows, the industry as a whole has a business interest in being able to quickly announce a complete, comprehensive list of affected foods. More important, there's a critical public health advantage to this. Quickly identifying dangerous products and pulling them from shelves saves lives. The industry has to do better.