Jeff Koeze's Blog Good Food, Good Business, and the Good Food Business

21Feb/090

Can We Test Our Way to Food Safety?

The Georgia Senate has passed a bill to require food testing and submission of positive test results to the state.   If properly funded -- and this is a huge if -- I have no doubt such a plan would help improve food safety.  But it is not a silver bullet.

The testing of food destroys the food. So you can never test 100% of the food and say that it is 100% safe. You have to take samples of the food (called your sampling plan), and based on the results of the test, you can infer that the food is safe.  But different foods and different processes require different sampling plans.  It also matters exactly what you are testing for.

Determining effective sampling plans for probably hundreds of different foods in hundreds of different settings would be massive, and I would add, highly technical task. (Unless Georgia goes to some crude one size fits all regime, or maybe S, M, L.) It is worth pointing out that a deep knowledge of statistical inference and sampling strategy design is not going to part of the skill set of the typical environmental health specialist.

The bill provides that if a company submits a testing plan as part of a food safety plan, and if the state approves it, then they can use that plan. The approvals would be a slightly less massive job. The prime benefit would be the advantage early on in getting a look at everybody's testing strategies. Some would be highly sophisticated, and could be used as models.

Before everyone jumps on the more testing bandwagon we need to be clear that monitoring a test regime of this magnitude will require a lot of staff and a lot of computer hardware and office space.

I'll also point out that the easiest thing in the world for an unscrupulous food manufacturer to do is to evade a regime like this. It is just as easy to pull your samples from a bulk package of previously tested product as it is off your line.

I'd rather see the money and effort go into boots on ground -- more, better trained inspectors and more frequent inspections.

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