I previously wrote about Bill Marler’s speech on foodborne illness liability, and his message that we should all take it seriously, whether we are a microfarm or a food conglomerate. Marler focused his hour on emphasizing the risk and the consequences, which didn’t leave a lot of time to discuss prevention. I’m sure that’s why I left that hour feeling so uneasy. But upon further reflection, I think there are things we can do that should make us feel confident being a part of the food supply.

Prevention and Protection

First of all, we have to bifurcate the risk topic into two categories. First and foremost, none of us want to make somebody sick or risk another’s life. So what can we do to reduce the risk to others who are consuming or using our products? The second topic is how can we protect ourselves from litigation? Without acknowledging the criticality of the first topic, we can seem selfish or inhumane in focusing only on the second. I think this is where big corporations can get into trouble with PR if an illness outbreak happens; when they worry so much about avoiding the admission of liability that they can appear uncaring about the potential victims.

Safety Risk Assessment

One thing I’ve seen from working in an FDA regulated industry is this: doing risk analysis on paper is a good thing. Medical product manufacturers need to be able to show that they’ve evaluated all of the potential risks, rated their severity and expected rate of occurrence, and done everything practical to mitigate or eliminate any high risks. This is part of how medical products get FDA 510K clearance, is by showing that they’ve done this exercise. Sounds a lot like an FMEA, doesn’t it?

So for selling eggs, I might analyze the risk of the customer getting sick from Salmonella. Here’s an article that summarizes most of the root causes for how salmonella can find its way into eggs: either from an infected chicken (which likely won’t show any symptoms), or from environmental factors. So some preventive measures one could take would be to keep laying areas clean, control rodent populations, take steps to discourage wild birds from hanging out in poultry pens, collect eggs as soon after they are laid as possible, get them straight in the refrigerator, and use USDA-recommended practices to clean, store and label the eggs. 

My Job, Your Job

Labeling is an important piece of risk management, because it puts some of the responsibility onto the consumer where it belongs.  We do everything on our end to practicably reduce the risk as low as we can get it. But that’s rarely zero. So we need to be sure the consumer understands this, and understands his role in causing that risk number to go up or down. We all laugh at the labels on coffee in the U.S. these days, caution: contents may be hot. But we know why coffee vendors do this, to prevent coffee drinkers from claiming we didn’t know coffee was hot nor that we shouldn’t spill it on our laps.

This is also why the USDA wants us to label eggs with the warning label, is it disallows the consumer from claiming ignorance about potential foodborne illness in eggs. I could sell an egg that has a very low microbial count; but if the consumer leaves the egg carton in their hot car trunk all day while running errands (thus encouraging the microbes to multiply wildly), and then mixes the eggs into cookie dough and eats some of that raw, he’s just taken a very low risk and made it much higher.

So informing the consumer of the “residual risk” and his role in keeping that number low plays to both parts of risk we are worried about. It hopefully prevents him from doing things which will increase his likelihood of getting sick, and that is most important. But if he chooses to ignore the warnings and take on risk anyway, it hopefully places responsibility for that risk more on his shoulders, and less on mine.

Signatures, I imagine, can be even better for high-risk activities or things happening on the farm. It’s one thing to retrospectively be able to say I have a practice of always labeling and warning consumers verbally; but it’s even stronger to say I have the consumer’s signature that he agreed he understood the risks and was taking responsibility for them. It seems most companies do this with employee safety training as well; not only do they train employees on safe practices, but they make them offer their signature that they agree they understand the practices and will follow company policy on them. It all gets back to whether we do everything we can to follow safe practices, and to influence others in the chain to do the same thing.

More to come!