Nuts-Inspection Won’t Improve Food Safety

First peanuts, now pistachios. Not to mention spinach, almonds and host of other vegetables. Major salmonella outbreaks have been in the news a lot in recent years. The government and the food industry are working overtime to beef up guidelines on what companies need to do to keep consumers safe. USA Today reports that the salmonella outbreak in peanut products has sickened 691 and may have contributed to the deaths of nine in 46 states. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the last illness was reported on Feb. 24, products are still being sporadically recalled. The proposed solution is, usually, more regulation and more inspection.

I have some bad news: 100% inspection is not 100% effective. If you doubt this, set a timer for 60 seconds and try counting the Fs in this paragraph

Count the F’s. OFTEN UNREALIZED, FEATURE FILMS
ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS
OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED
WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF OVER FIFTY YEARS.

Did you count 10 Fs? If so, you are in the minority. I’ve administered the “F-test” to students for many years and usually only 10%-20% find them all (even allowing for the trick F in the first sentence!) And this includes classes of inspectors. The effectiveness of inspection in real-world situations is much worse. An article in Test and Measurement World documented a very detailed study of inspection effectiveness on solder quality defects and found

Manual or automated optical inspection found only about 24% of all defects in these nine studies. In-circuit test covered about 26%. But the biggest eye opener came from functional test. If functional test were our only step, it would have caught no more than about 20% of the defects on those boards—and in most cases only around 10%. It couldn’t find solder problems or missing pull-up resistors, for example, because the boards usually still worked.

The truth is, it’s a lot easier to count Fs than it is to spot problems in a food processing facility. Inspection won’t get it done, and regulation will merely result in more paperwork and jobs for people who keep track of such things. So, what do I recommend? For starters, how about using a technology proven to help with such things? Specifically, food irradiation.

According to Idaho State University

Irradiation of food has been approved in 37 countries for more than 40 products. The largest marketers of irradiated food are Belgium and France (each country irradiates about 10,000 tons of food per year), and the Netherlands (which irradiates bout 20,000 tons per year).

The Center for Disease control confirms that Irradiation could also eliminate bacteria like Shigella and Salmonella from fresh produce, as well as a wide variety of other bacteria from other foods.

We know what to do. Others have proven that it is safe and effective. Let’s drop all of this feel-good chatter about inspecting and regulating quality and safety into our food supply and do what works.

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