Bob Whitaker chats with Beth Thibault, menu innovation manager for Wendy’s, after his presentation July 30 at the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference in Monterey, Calif. Whitaker is chief science and technology officer for PMA.
Bob Whitaker chats with Beth Thibault, menu innovation manager for Wendy’s, after his presentation July 30 at the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference in Monterey, Calif. Whitaker is chief science and technology officer for PMA.

MONTEREY, Calif. — As images of unicorns, leprechauns and the like flashed onscreen during Bob Whitaker’s presentation of the top 10 myths and truths about food safety, one might have wondered if truth would triumph.

In the end, Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference attendees found out about eight food safety myths and two truths. But Whitaker, PMA chief science and technology officer, used his examples of wishful thinking to paint a larger picture of the food safety challenges facing operators, distributors and grower-shippers during the July 30 session.

Food safety myths sound more plausible than leprechauns but prove unfounded anyway, Whitaker said, providing one such myth: “If we had better traceability systems, we might be able to figure out the cause of these foodborne outbreaks faster.”

Whitaker heard that often during a recent E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts in Europe. But identifying causes is really the work of epidemiology, he said, and mistakes made there — for example, by linking the outbreak for a while to Spanish cucumbers — can only be corrected there.

“What traceability can do is make your recalls more surgical,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be a commodity killer,” Whitaker said, referring to the disappearance of spinach from U.S. shelves during a 2006 E. coli outbreak. “It can look more like the other food categories. When there’s a recall on hamburger, what do we see? A warning tells you to look at the code, take it out of your freezer and take it back to the store. Period, end of story. There’s no glamor, no news.”

Other myths on Whitaker’ list:

  • Food safety is not a concern for distributors;
  • Food safety is an issue for some commodities but not others;
  • Audits meet all of a company’s food safety needs;
  • The Food Safety Modernization Act resolves the whole issue;
  • A businesses cover its bases by hiring a food safety manager;
  • Buying from local growers means not having to worry about food safety; and
  • Requiring suppliers to test everything for pathogens is the best way to ensure safety.

With 4 million spinach plants to an acre, testing is a hit or miss proposition, Whitaker said.

“I’d spend 99% on prevention,” he said. “You can’t test your way to food safety.”

But growers who do test and sample, he said, tend to find ways to improve their business in the process and net a return on the money spent.

“When you test, it makes you think about your operation,” he said.

The two truths on his list were:

  • Food safety science is changing all the time, thanks in part to research funded by the Center for Produce Safety; and
  • A communications strategy should be part of any food safety program.