Modern food trends are creating many safety challenges, and food safety specialists must be prepared to respond. Food safety and quality experts must anticipate future trends when navigating the changes to food safety practices that their companies must implement. Consultants also must use food trends as a compass to guide food entrepreneurs in protecting their brand. Regulators must watch food trends and changes in consumer behavior to anticipate changes to the food code to protect public health.

Gardens in Our Restaurants
We have visited several restaurants where hydroponic wall gardens have been installed in the front of the house where customers dine. This system, primarily used to grow herbs and leafy greens, looks like beautiful living wall art to the guest, but is it safe to use in the menu items? We considered this question while dining, watching how guests behaved around the raw agricultural ingredients to be featured in our poached pear and toasted walnut mixed-greens salad.

Guests “oohed and ahhed” over the color combinations on the wall that created a piece of modern art. Then it happened. They had to touch, pet and fondle the garden that was soon to become our dinner. They had to examine if it was really live plants or just silk imitation. I began wondering what else customers might do to those leafy greens on the wall. How easy it would be for someone to spray or place an unknown substance on the produce or in the soil or water, contaminating the root system.

Would this wall of living art be considered an approved source by a regulatory agency? Would a regulator even look at this agricultural field of greens during their inspection? Does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food code really address this scenario? Maybe this needs to be presented as an issue at the next Conference for Food Protection meeting in 2018.

Another restaurant agricultural food trend is to have an actual garden outside the restaurant in the flower beds surrounding the brick and mortar or on the building’s rooftop. Again, the food safety professional switch turns on when I see these types of gardens as a guest in a hotel where my room overlooks the chef’s rooftop gardens or walking into a restaurant for dinner and being fascinated by the beautiful colors of heirloom tomatoes growing in the flower beds.

While this type of production can yield fresh, delicious produce, Listeria and other foodborne disease-causing bacteria can develop when growers lack a good food safety protocol or workers fail to follow it. Workers can unknowingly track pathogens into kitchen areas on their shoes and then to the actual food prepared. Some large foodservice companies that employ this fresh produce growing practice have worked with food safety experts to develop proper Standard Operating Procedures and Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) to implement in this growing trend at foodservice businesses (pun intended)!

If consumers are to gain all of the health benefits of eating fresh produce, it must be grown, harvested and prepared in a clean environment.

Locally Grown, Locally Produced
Customers have been vocal about wanting companies to be more responsible in the area of sustainability. This includes supporting local farmers and food producers to reduce carbon footprints and boost local businesses. Some who have embraced this philosophy have a false sense of security regarding locally grown food—they perceive it as safer than foods produced on big agri-business farms that travel hundreds of miles to the consumer. Safer is not necessarily the case, which is why foodservice companies must implement supplier-approval programs for local growers and producers. They must be required to implement food safety practices at every step of the growing, harvesting, processing and distribution process.

Traceability is more important than ever. If a foodborne illness event occurs, investigators must be able to trace the food to its source. Even though consumers and food businesses purchase from a local cooperative, produce may be provided by dozens of growers. Co-ops must be able to trace food indicated in the outbreak back to the farm it came from.

One of the worst Listeria outbreaks in recent years occurred at Jensen Farms in Colorado in 2011, with 33 people dying from contaminated cantaloupe. Investigators tracked the bacteria’s potential source to a dump truck used to discard melons parked near the packing shed. The truck carried melons to a cattle lot and could have brought Listeria back to the packing area. Inspectors also discovered pools of water in walkways and along drains, providing breeding grounds for bacteria. Washing and sorting equipment was purchased from a potato operation and could not be properly cleaned or sanitized for melons. In addition, the farm did not follow FDA guidelines for cooling melons and packed warm melons from the field in boxes that were then refrigerated. This method of cooling had the potential to produce condensation that promotes Listeria growth.[1]

Every grower must implement proper sanitary measures and employ GAPs developed by the food industry, producer organizations, governments and nongovernmental organizations.

During food safety research at a greenhouse, for example, researchers found no handwashing capabilities. Employees also wore the same gloves when they handled, harvested and placed tomatoes in boxes. Employees touched their feet and ladder steps with their gloves and then cross-contaminated the food product when they packed it.  

Again, food producers and processors must have a food safety protocol and confirm that employees follow it. Failure to do so could result in local and regional foodborne illness outbreaks and long-term health consequences for individuals affected.

In 2016, a restaurant in Ohio purchased eggs raised by a small local farmer. The chef loved the deep-orange color and rich taste of the yolks from this flock of laying hens. The chef decided to use these local eggs in house-made mayonnaise, which has become a consumer flavor trend over the past 5 years. The story reported by Food Safety News shares how the local sourcing went wrong for the restaurateur:

“The most recent update on the outbreak, posted March 8 by Public Health of Dayton & Montgomery, reported 20 of 80 sick people had been confirmed by lab analysis to have Salmonella infections. Illness onset dates were from Feb. 22 through Feb. 28.

“Health officials said in a March 3 statement they received the first complaints about illness possibly linked to Lucky’s on Feb. 29. They inspected the restaurant that day.

“House-made mayonnaise from Lucky’s Taproom tested positive for Salmonella.

Drew Trick, owner of Lucky’s Taproom & Eatery, voluntarily closed his doors Feb. 29 when health officials told him about the reports of patrons becoming ill.

“Trick acknowledged responsibility for the Salmonella outbreak March 7 in a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“‘Well, it seems our efforts to source locally and make our food from scratch has failed our customers and ourselves. Know that we are doing all that is possible to rectify the situation and eliminate the chance of this happening again,’ Trick said in the Facebook post.

“‘Being that it is very early in the investigation, we are awaiting more details than what is being offered by the mainstream media. That being said, we are prolonging our closure for an unknown period of time. We thank you all for your support and hope to open with a clean bill of health very soon,’ he added.”

In another instance, a local ethnic market wanted to take advantage of the “buy local” trend and located a small farm that raised goats. The market purchased the slaughtered goats, to be used for retail sale, but did not realize that the facility and carcasses needed to be inspected by the state department of agriculture.

Food Safety Threats Strike the Smoothie Craze
The trend toward healthier eating has created food safety issues within the frozen food industry, as consumers eat frozen produce raw that was never intended for consumption without cooking thoroughly. Consumers, for example, often add frozen fruits and vegetables to salads and mix them into smoothies without cooking them.

Smoothies have become another favorite flavor trend now found on many restaurant menus using both fresh and frozen produce to create flavor profiles that satisfy the consumer’s palate. In my past experience as a local regulator and working on the retail side of the food industry, never did it cross my mind that frozen produce was not considered a ready-to-eat (RTE) food. Were other local regulators aware of the required cooking of frozen produce before serving to the public? Did they question the use of these ingredients included in smoothies? I am sure that small foodservice owners/operators/chefs were not aware.

The frozen food industry should have been able to predict this consumer trend and prepare for it by increasing the food safety standards for pathogen tolerance of frozen food production. The only standards that were changed were the consumer cooking instructions on the packaging. Who reads those on the back of a bag of peas? Frozen pizza, yes; frozen spinach, no.

Monitoring social media such as Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, mommy bloggers and other sources for recipes would have been a huge indicator to the frozen food industry that consumers and chefs were using frozen produce as an RTE food.

The year 2016 saw a large-scale voluntary recall of frozen fruits and vegetables marketed under 42 brand names. The recall involved 350 frozen foods, with eight people sickened and two dying.[3] It took the loss of lives, health and negative economic impact for the frozen food industry to begin changing its food safety standards on this particular category.

Escherichia coli in Flour Results in New Food Safety Alert
Raw cookie dough and other food dough were identified as sources for E. coli outbreaks, because consumers ate the dough or batter raw without proper baking. In 2016, 38 people became infected with an outbreak strain of E. coli in 20 states that was traced to flour produced at a General Mills facility in Missouri. All of the people impacted reported using flour in the week before they became ill or eating or tasting homemade dough or batter.[4]

In 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that 72 people became infected with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 in 30 states. Victims ranged in age from 2 to 65, with 65% younger than 19 years old. Of those who became ill, 71% were female. Fortunately, no deaths occurred. CDC determined that the source of the outbreak was linked to individuals eating raw refrigerated Nestlé Toll House prepackaged cookie dough. These statistics are important to note that mostly children and women were affected by this outbreak, indicating that these two groups are the primary consumers of raw cookie dough.

Nestlé had placed proper food safety warnings on the packaging of these products, but that did not stop people from eating their favorite comfort food. Following consumer food trends and making food safety changes according to how the product was actually being consumed versus how the manufacturer intended it to be consumed would have prevented this outbreak. Even watching the popular TV sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond (1996–2005) would have tipped off manufacturers that people eat raw refrigerated prepackaged cookie dough as a comfort food.[5]

Food safety experts have always warned against eating raw cookie dough, because of the possibility of contracting Salmonella from the raw eggs used in the dough. But in the two outbreaks discussed above, eggs were not the identified contamination source. How does flour, a low-water-activity food, become a hazardous ingredient? Wheat and other grains that are grown for flour production are not treated to kill bacteria that might come from animals, specifically birds and rodents, which defecate on the grain before it is milled into flour. The expectation has always been that the flour used to make food will be cooked to a high-enough temperature to kill foodborne pathogens that may remain in the product.

The hottest snack food flavor trend now is cookie dough! Cookie dough-flavored candy bars, ice cream, protein bars, yogurt and, yes, even cookie dough Oreos. There are cookie dough scoop shops popping up all over the United States. A scoop of your favorite cookie dough replaces ice cream in the crunchy sugar cone. People are lining up out the door to buy this sweet treat. Fortunately, these scoop shops are using pasteurized egg products and heat-treated RTE flour so that customers do not have to worry about Salmonella or E. coli.

Grocery stores and restaurants are getting in on this latest craze. Customers are flocking to get a scoop of their favorite raw cookie dough. If chefs add this delight to the dessert menu, then it must be asked whether pasteurized eggs and heat-treated RTE flour are being used as the ingredients. Never assume that culinary experts know about the risks of serving raw flour.[6]

Lifestyle Diet Choice or Health Requirement?
Manufacturers of gluten-free (GF) food products understand the strict requirements that surround using this claim on packaging and gaining GF certification. The FDA website states that on August 2, 2013, the agency issued a final rule defining “gluten-free” for food labeling, which will help consumers, especially those living with celiac disease, be confident that items labeled “gluten-free” meet a defined standard for gluten content.[7]

FDA’s website also states that GF foods must contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. Foods may be labeled “gluten-free” if they are inherently GF or do not contain an ingredient that is: 1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat); 2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or 3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 ppm or more of gluten in the food.[8]

It goes on further to state that FDA recognizes that people with celiac disease are also interested in being able to identify GF foods served in restaurants and other retail establishments that serve prepared foods to customers. The GF final rule applies to packaged foods, which may be sold in some retail and foodservice establishments such as some carryout restaurants. Given the public health significance of “gluten-free” labeling, FDA says that GF claims on restaurants’ and other establishments’ menus should be consistent with FDA’s definition. State and local governments play an important role in oversight of these establishments.[9]

Those conducting food safety inspections can state that during inspection they are not asking for validation of GF claims made on the menu. Nor are they provided with the proper tools that can measure the concentration of gluten in menu items or food contact surfaces. GF claims made on menus are usually evaluated by the consumer that has sensitivities or allergies to gluten. Below is a story from a customer complaint about a restaurant making a GF claim.

“Restaurant A was in need of a new menu upgrade, and the menu vendor mentioned gluten-free. The restaurant owner was unfamiliar with the meaning of ‘gluten-free,’ and the vendor encouraged him to ‘just pick some items’ as it was the ‘in thing to offer.’ Once the menu was printed, over half of the menu items were labeled as gluten-free.

“I was conducting an inspection at Restaurant A and was reviewing the menu for a consumer advisory. I noticed the gluten-free claim, and we discussed it, even though this did not specifically fall under the food code as a violation. Several weeks later, the health department, where I worked, received a complaint about the gluten-free claims on the menu from a customer who had eaten at Restaurant A and was able to identify that almost all of the items claiming to be gluten-free were indeed not. I revisited the location and discussed the legal ramifications along with a detailed explanation of what ‘gluten-free’ meant under the FDA ruling and encouraged them to update their menu accordingly.”

GF has been publicized in books, on social media and through broadcast media as the newest diet craze. It is the new consumer food trend. Many people are unaware of the sensitivities and severe allergies that individuals have to gluten and that they must not ingest it. GF menu item claims must be validated, monitored and verified on a regular basis by the restaurant kitchen staff. Restaurants must follow the FDA final rule on GF claims.

The food safety industry needs quicker testing methods that are cost effective for use by culinary professionals in restaurant kitchens. This innovation would allow for both industry and regulatory staff to verify the GF claim on menus.

What is a vegan? Here’s how the dictionary defines it:[10] veg·an 've–gen/, as a noun, is defined as a person who does not eat or use animal products; as an adjective, is defined as using or containing no animal products.

Veganism is both the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in the diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. A follower of either the diet or the philosophy is known as a vegan.

Choosing a vegan diet may be a lifestyle choice, but many individuals that are allergic to dairy or eggs use the vegan claim as a way to navigate food and menu choices.

Consulting about food safety with restaurants that make a vegan claim on their menu can be a unique experience. “Vegan” does not have a formal definition from the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture or Federal Trade Commission for the purposes of labeling. Chefs develop their vegan menu passionately so that each item is packed full of flavor for their vegan customers. Most chefs don’t realize the customers with allergies rely on these claims to make life-or-death meal choices.

We are passionate about working with the foodservice companies that are making vegan claims on their menu and want to share the reason why. Below is a true story of the importance of making the vegan claim on a menu.

“Parents ordered a vegan milkshake for their daughter, who had a severe dairy allergy. They were diligent in asking the waitstaff if the milkshake was truly dairy-free and explained that their young daughter was very allergic to dairy. The waitstaff assured the parents that absolutely no dairy was used in the vegan milkshake. Although the shake itself was indeed vegan (dairy-free), the restaurant did not have a designated vegan shake blender. The one that was used was not properly cleaned between uses (dairy and vegan), causing the shake to contain trace amounts of dairy protein, which caused an almost immediate allergic reaction in the little girl and a trip to the local ER. It turned out to be an expensive family night out.”

New Services, Technologies Raise Safety Concerns
Americans’ demand for healthy, convenient food has resulted in food delivery services that send consumers a box of preportioned meal ingredients and recipes for an entire week. These foods are nutritious and appealing, but the question arises as to whether the foods are stored at the proper temperature when delivered. Do delivery personnel leave food packages on the porch during the hot summer until the consumer returns?

Home-delivered food must be accompanied by ice packs or contained in insulated coolers capable of keeping the product safe. In the future, drones and self-driving vehicles may be used to make home food deliveries; food packages may include computer chips to monitor the product temperature and indicate (with a color change or a message on the recipient’s cellphone) if the food becomes unsafe for consumption.

Food delivery by Uber, Yellow Cab and other travel service providers is a hot trend for consumers who don’t want to cook at home and are craving their favorite restaurant’s menu items. The consumer orders the food through the travel service. The driver picks up the takeout order from the restaurant and delivers it to the customer’s door. Who is responsible for the condition, temperature and quality of the food once it leaves the restaurant? What is the chain of custody? Is the food protected from intentional contamination causing harm to the end customer? Who regulates these deliveries?

These are the questions asked when consulting with many foodservice companies. One multi-unit pizza owner told us a horrifying story. He was working the night shift at one of his many locations. A driver of a travel service company picked up a pizza order to deliver to a customer. The driver placed the pizza box on the roof of the car to unlock the door. The pizza box slid off of the roof and fell onto the sidewalk, dropping the pizza (crust side down) directly on the sidewalk. Before the owner could make it outside to throw the pizza away, the driver scooped the pizza up in the box and drove off as fast as possible to make his delivery. The owner was mortified.

Food printing will likely burgeon in popularity as healthy, 3-D printed foods (pasta, chocolates and dough-based foods) become available. Home cooking machines can prepare foods such as lasagna. The consumer places the ingredients in the machine and returns home to find prepared hot lasagna ready for the family meal.

Cruise ships and casinos are now using robots for bartenders. Look it up on YouTube; it is quite a show. Before we know it, machines will replace food employees in restaurant kitchens. Food safety experts need to be ready for the entrance of this technology into retail food establishments.

The food industry must consider various issues relative to this type of technology. How do the robots wash their hands after touching food? Do they need to wear gloves when working with RTE foods?

If the cooking machine breaks, will ingredients such as ground beef cook to the proper temperature? How is the machine cleaned and sanitized, and can it be broken down for cleaning? Users of 3-D printers must be able to prevent foodborne illness and remove allergen proteins that can contaminate foods that the printer next prepares.

Modern food trends are creating many safety challenges, and food safety specialists must be prepared to respond—today and in the future. 

Gina R. (Nicholson) Kramer, RS/REHS, is the executive director of Savour Food Safety International Inc.™

Vincent Fasone, RS/REHS, is managing director for Savor Safe Food.