Critics: Don’t swallow CSPI safety report

While a recent report found that there are more foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants — where the majority of seafood is consumed in the U.S.— than in homes, critics say the report does not tell the whole story.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported that solved outbreaks of foodborne illnesses reached 1,610 with more than 28,000 people sickened in restaurants and 893 outbreaks that sickened 13,000 in American homes.

At the same time, CSPI noted that the overall rate of foodborne illnesses are declining, dropping 42 percent from 2002 through 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Still CSPI raised concerns about seafood safety in its “Outbreak Alert! 2014” report. “Fresh produce, seafood and packaged foods, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, were responsible for more than twice as many solved outbreaks as meat and poultry products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” CSPI wrote in a statement.

However, in its report, CSPI acknowledges that seafood products are not causing most of the food safety outbreaks. “Let’s let the report speak for itself: ‘Among CSPI’s specific food categories, produce was linked to the greatest number of outbreaks, followed closely by seafood. Produce was also responsible for the greatest number of illnesses… while seafood outbreaks were the smallest, on average’,” Gavin Gibbons (pictured), VP of communications for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), told SeafoodSource.

CSPI may have another agenda for calling out produce and seafood in its annual Outbreak! report. “This is an annual exercise designed by CSPI to promote its single-food-safety-agency lobbying agenda on Capitol Hill,” Gibbons said.

Plus, CSPI’s report does not provide data on seafood-related outbreaks at restaurants. “Without this information we have no way of dissecting the seafood information with any reasonable focus on foodservice,” Gibbons said. And there are other contradictions in the report. “CSPI notes alarmingly that seafood was responsible for the second most outbreaks before describing the impact of those same outbreaks as ‘relatively few illnesses’,” Gibbons said.

In fact, restaurants have come quite a long way in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks, whether they are from seafood, produce, or other foods. “For the foodservice industry, there is no greater priority than food safety and our customers’ well-being,” the National Restaurant Association(NRA)’s VP of Food Policy, Joan McGlockton, told SeafoodSource.

“The food reporting system in the United States is better today than ever before. The fact that states reported 42 percent fewer outbreaks in 2011 than in 2002 is a positive trend. Both federal and state agencies have worked to develop excellent tools for foodborne disease incidence reporting at the state level,” she said.

And most restaurants — including those that serve seafood — have stepped up their efforts to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. “Reputable restaurants follow best practices when it comes to handling and preparing seafood and NFI encourages them to continue doing so, while utilizing all available technologies and resources for food safety,” Gibbons said.

"I think that the consumer is getting much more diligent about where they eat out, and I believe that restaurants are being more vigilant with respect to maintaining food safety programs and systems. Being that food safety is on the forefront these days, restaurants that are not staying vigilant will simply go out of business, hopefully before someone does get sick," Dan Ross, field development director for the Austin, Texas-based How Do You Roll? sushi restaurant chain, told Seafood Source.

How Do You Roll? has a a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan, "documented by each vendor that we buy our seafood from to ensure that we have a paper trail with regard to how the item was processed and packaged," Ross said. Strict food rotation and shelf life protocols, along with staff training, are also key to preventing outbreaks, Ross said. "We can have all the systems and protocols in place, but staff education and awareness is truly the key to proper food safety," Ross said. "Our staff are required to pass a food safety test in order to receive a food handlers license; we take it one step farther by educating them on how products should look, feel and taste."

In addition, more than 5.6 million foodservice workers have been trained in the NRA’s ServSafe safe food preparation training program. “Food safety in restaurants depends on safe ingredients and food safety best practices in preparation, handling and service,” McGlockton said.


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