Safe From Farm to Fork

Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center joins global effort to improve safe food handling

Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Extension America's Healthiest Campus Food & Agricultural Products Center

Roughly one out of six Americans — 48 million people — gets sick each year because of foodborne illness. In addition, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases annually.

Oklahoma State University is tackling global issues faced by the food industry in reducing these statistics. Jason Young, quality management specialist for OSU's Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center, joined more than 100 food-safety experts from around the world in Düsseldorf, Germany, in support of the Global Food Safety Initiative in September.

"It was an honor to be able to work with food-safety experts worldwide and discuss how we can make our food even safer than it already is," Young says. "Each and every person who attended this conference is dedicated to improving food safety on a global scale."

Unitherm Food Systems of Bristow, Oklahoma, provided the sponsorship for Young to participate in the international meeting.

Driving advancement in food safety

The Global Food Safety Initiative, which strives for continuous improvement of food-safety management systems to ensure safe food and consumer confidence, drives specialized advancement through its Technical Working Groups.

These groups are composed of experts from retailers, manufacturers, food-service operators, service providers, standard owners, certification bodies, accreditation bodies and industry associations. They provide technical expertise and advice to the GFSI board, work independently on a range of food-safety topics, and come together three times a year to share knowledge and discuss their work.

"The work of GFSI would not have moved forward in the way that it has over the years without the dedication of GFSI Technical Working Group experts and the support of the companies they represent," says Véronique Discours-Buhot, director of the Global Food Safety Initiative and the Consumer Goods Forum.

Young, the only attendee from Oklahoma, is a member of the GFSI Technical Working Group for Regional Outreach. This group provides advice to the GFSI board to develop a strategy, action plans and shared tools to support global expansion during the next five years.

Young says this was the first of many meetings and conference calls during the next two years.

"In this first session, we learned how the current local groups operate," he says. "Part of our objective is to help GFSI establish an application process to form new regional groups. Additionally, we want to construct a method for the groups to be sustainable and directed by a local team with support from GFSI."

Discours-Buhot calls food safety a shared responsibility. Since the creation of the Technical Working Groups, more than 100 companies, consultancies and organizations have collaborated in 25 teams, covering all areas of food safety.

"With the food supply chain growing more and more complex, no one can do it alone," she says. "We are thrilled to bring together the entire industry spectrum – manufacturers, retailers and service providers and also international organizations, academia and government representatives – to collaborate on key food-safety issues. Above all, the Technical Working Groups are a fantastic example of collaboration."

Triple S Farms

Jason Young reviews Global Food Safety Initiative standards with Blair Switzer, left, and Dale Beerwinkle, right, of Triple S Farms in Hydro, Oklahoma.

Young says what makes GFSI unique is its dialogue with the food industry. Challenges are brought to the GFSI board, which mandates working groups to collaborate on global issues and find solutions to address industry concerns. Solutions and best practices are shared and publicized to drive continuous improvement.

The next Technical Working Group is scheduled in Berlin, Germany, during GFSI's Global Food Safety Conference in March 2016. There, Young will join a network of more than 1,000 food-safety leaders to support the GFSI vision of safe food everywhere.

Serving Oklahoma's food industry

With a growing demand for safe quality food products, the need for food-safety programs is more important than ever. Professionals within FAPC, a part of OSU's Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, recognized this need and embraced the opportunity. Oklahoma's food-industry leaders and FAPC's Industry Advisory Committee, center faculty and staff implemented a Global Food Safety System program to assist Oklahoma food companies in meeting GFSI requirements. This program focuses on food-industry assistance in training, auditing, pre-third-party audit preparations, education, and in-plant technical assistance for food safety and quality programs.

Young helps food companies by conducting internal audits.

"Globalization of the food industry has significantly affected almost every Oklahoma food processor directly and indirectly with mandated food-safety and security regulations and policies that cut across all food-processing sectors," says Chuck Willoughby, FAPC manager of business and marketing relations. "Our FAPC Global Food Safety System program provides services to meet the food-safety and security needs of Oklahoma's food industry."

Since establishing the program in 2011, Young has assisted 12 companies and provided more than 600 hours of GFSI services. With Young's help, nine companies have passed their GFSI audits.

"There are several audit schemes such as Safe Quality Food and BRC Global, which are designed to meet GFSI," Young says. "I am able to meet with the company and conduct an internal audit. We work to identify any gaps within the company's food-safety and quality system, and these gaps are further discussed to identify ways to meet the criteria."

FAPC's program is continually growing, leading to fewer food-safety incidents with the implementation of these systems.