Weather Forecast


Global reach of food industry underscores importance of safety

In any given year, an estimated one in six Americans will contract a foodborne illness, according to Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, director of the dairy and food inspection division for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- At the Minnesota-based Schwan Food Co., raw ingredients for the company's many products are obtained from more than 800 suppliers worldwide. Schwan's production of pizza alone amounts to 1 million tons a day.

It's this complexity that keeps Jeff Varcoe, vice president of food safety and quality, constantly vigilant.

"That's a lot of opportunities for foodborne illness," he said. "That keeps me up at night."

Varcoe was one of three panelists who spoke about food safety Wednesday at the second annual animal ag conference, hosted by the MinnWest Technology Campus. More than 130 innovators and investors were at the event, which showcased critical and emerging issues in livestock production and processing, from innovations in animal science technology to animal welfare in the livestock industry.

Food safety occupies an important juncture between the animal industry and the public: the intersection between animal health, human health and public health.

"In terms of food safety, we're all at risk," said Dr. Scott Wells, who moderated the panel discussion and is an epidemiologist and director of academic programs at the University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety.

Over the past decade, Americans have seen numerous recalls of tainted food. Products have ranged from cantaloupes to peanut butter to ground turkey. In many cases consumers have become seriously ill or died after eating food contaminated with pathogens such as salmonella or E. coli.

In any given year, an estimated one in six Americans will contract a foodborne illness, said Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, director of the dairy and food inspection division for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The global nature of the food industry means that contamination often has the potential to spread far and wide, the panelists said.

Brian Paulson, food ingredient director of quality assurance for Davisco Foods, pointed to the 700,000 pounds of dry whey ingredients his company supplies daily to other food manufacturers.

Because the whey is used by the food industry in so many products, its reach is global, he said. "We have millions of consumers around the world that rely on our products."

A sweeping overhaul by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration aims to increase the safety of the U.S. food supply and shift the focus from responding to foodborne illness outbreaks to preventing them. The Food Safety and Modernization Act was signed into law last year; specific rules are in the process of being written.

Besides focusing more on prevention, the law is expected to enhance U.S. ability to oversee the safety of food products and ingredients that are imported from other countries. It also calls for demonstration projects to improve the tracing of products across the food system.

The panelists said most large food manufacturers are already meeting many of the standards contained in the Food Safety and Modernization Act, and smaller companies will be following suit.

"Overall, you're going to have a positive impact," Varcoe said.

In an interview following the panel discussion, Kassenborg said the number of foodborne illness-related cases in the U.S. has been on the rise, both because there's better recognition and reporting and because the actual incidence is increasing.

"We still detect a very small proportion of foodborne illness," she said, noting that many people who fall sick don't see a doctor or receive a lab-confirmed diagnosis. "There's lots of places where it can fall through the cracks."

Although food safety is key for manufacturers, consumers also can adopt safer food handling practices in their own kitchen to help reduce the likelihood of coming down with a foodborne illness, she said. "I think they need to take steps that they can control. ... It's really a shared responsibility."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150