Stephanie was finally moving her way up the ladder in her position at her family friend's food factory. She had been initially hired to do marketing and social media management, but a position opened in the Quality department, and she decided she wanted to take on the challenge. As Stephanie continued to climb the ladder in the Quality department, she faced an unexpected ethical challenge. One day, she discovered that a batch of a popular product had failed the routine microbial testing, indicating potential contamination. The production team was under pressure to meet tight deadlines, and they suggested discreetly releasing the batch without retesting. Pressured by the looming production deadlines and her ultimate desire for a promotion, Stephanie made the difficult choice to release the batch without retesting, ignoring her gut feeling.
As the contaminated product made its way to store shelves, reports of customer illnesses started pouring in. Stephanie's decision had put the customers at risk and tarnished the reputation of the brand. Her short-sighted decision to prioritize her career ambitions over food safety led to serious consequences for the customers, but to her surprise, her decision to prioritize the company's interests over customer safety seemed to pay off. The company's management, which valued profits above all else, rewarded her with a promotion and praised her for making "tough decisions." Stephanie's ascent up the career ladder was propelled by her willingness to conform to the unethical company culture. While her promotion symbolized success within the company, it also highlighted the moral compromise she had made, casting a shadow over her achievements to the onlookers with integrity.
Ethics in the Food Industry
Numerous sectors, spanning from public health, medicine, artificial intelligence, arms and defense development, genetics, microbiology, and beyond, require that their professionals engage with ethical education during their college years. I enrolled in a course on biomedical ethics during my college years, an experience that resonated deeply and that significantly shaped how I navigate ethical challenges to this day. That class not only intrigued me, but also stimulated contemplation that stretched beyond conventional boundaries, allowing me to break free from the limitations of my upbringing. The questions it raised were profound: What defines rightness? Does a right course of action remain consistent across differing contexts? Who holds the authority to determine what is ethically right?
The concept of ethics is essentially a subjective construct, rooted in an individual's personal convictions. In industries where scientists are forging ahead with emerging technologies that may carry unverified safety factors, such as artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, robotic police dogs, and others, it becomes paramount for these experts to possess a firm grasp of the ethical dimensions guiding their endeavors in their respective industries. In the absence of this ethical guiding light, we witness instances such as the infamous Theranos fraud case1 involving Elizabeth Holmes, where ethical considerations were cast aside in pursuit of personal acclaim and greed.
Food embodies vitality; it functions as a conduit for life, housing microorganisms within its structure. It mirrors its surroundings and encounters, absorbing influences from both the natural world and human intervention. However, a clear fact emerges: a noteworthy proportion of food companies are overseen by individuals with limited knowledge in the fields of biology and microbiology. Among them, a considerable number have not engaged in, let alone completed, vital laboratory training that imparts an adequate comprehension of the intricate biological elements of food, encompassing the interplay of microorganisms within its composition.
While categorized as consumer-packaged goods, food does not exist as an inert substance, nor can it be reduced to a harmless commodity. It exists not only for consumption, but also triggers a cascade of intricate biochemical reactions within the human body. These reactions are unique to each consumer, influenced by the ingested substances, their personal environment, medications, recreational substances, body chemistry, genetics, and more. To consider food as an inert product, akin to rubber tires, t-shirts, or pencils, would be a grave and highly unethical miscalculation. The average consumer's disregard and undervaluation of the profound impact that consuming poor-quality food can have on their well-being is both astonishing and startling. Equally concerning is the nonchalant attitude with which food handlers frequently disregard food safety policies and regulations, even in the face of potential catastrophic outcomes for consumers, including death.
We have all experienced the introductory food safety training given to new hires, where the presenter asks, "Would you serve this to your family in your own kitchen?" The question is futile in this context as, in most cases, the hourly worker hired for general labor lacks the understanding of what constitutes safe or legal food. While the question might seem overly simplistic, it underscores an important point: Many consumers and food handlers could benefit from a stronger understanding of essential ethics related to food handling, storage, and transportation. These ethics focus on the practical aspects of food safety, rather than diving into broader topics like animal welfare or geopolitical issues tied to sourcing.
A swift online search reveals that most available courses and webinars pertaining to food ethics touch upon dietary preferences like veganism and vegetarianism, driven by personal ethical considerations tied to consumption habits. However, a significant void exists in the realm of food ethics courses catering to professionals within the food industry, including food handlers and business owners. Comparatively, the medical field offers a multitude of ethics courses across numerous U.S. universities. For instance, medical practitioners who administer foreign substances into the human body undertake rigorous training that includes evaluating risks and benefits to make ethical decisions. Such ethical grounding aids doctors in diagnoses and treatment plans. It is inconceivable for hospital administrators without medical expertise to recommend medical procedures based on limited knowledge, as it has the potential to profoundly affect a patient's life trajectory.
Thus, a pertinent question arises: Why does the food industry not mandate food safety professionals to undergo food safety ethics courses? Is there a logical basis for excluding this crucial component from the curriculum?
State of Ethics in the Food Industry
One could ask, "Is it truly essential to teach ethics to those working in food safety?" I have encountered this sentiment numerous times from countless consumers, often in the form of statements like, "Why does it matter? Food poisoning isn't really that serious," accompanied by a slew of other trivial and somewhat thoughtless remarks. These attitudes seem to normalize compromised health as an inevitable consequence of consuming retail food, as if pain and discomfort are prerequisites for accepting these subpar, unnatural, and processed products.
Is there a genuine need for ethical deliberation within the industry? Are consumers fervently advocating for enhanced food safety standards on Capitol Hill? Do consumers truly comprehend the relevant and intricate challenges that the food industry confronts? Alternatively, could it be that the average consumer has unwittingly succumbed to misleading marketing tactics and the failure of U.S. government agencies to disclose information transparently, promptly, and efficiently?
An illustrative instance showcasing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) delay in disseminating crucial information that led to tragic outcomes is the case of Cronobacter sakazakii contamination of infant formula that was produced at Abbott Nutrition's Sturgis, Michigan facility. A comprehensive, 34-page whistleblower report2 was submitted before consumer complaints arose. The submission of this report to FDA took place on October 20, 2021. However, it was not until the close of December 2021 that FDA engaged with the whistleblower. As per media reports, an onsite facility inspection by FDA transpired on January 31, 2022, and the official recall was not initiated until February 17, 2022.3
When considering ethics, a pertinent question arises: What are the boundaries? For instance, if a CEO appoints an art history major lacking relevant experience in the food industry as their food safety director—a role that involves critical decisions affecting consumer safety—does this CEO adhere to ethical standards? Can ignorance serve as a valid defense? The line between ethics and excessive caution becomes blurred; where should the demarcation lie?
Food Safety Culture vs. Food Safety Ethics
The concept of food safety culture began gaining significant attention in the food industry during the late 20th century and continued to evolve in the 21st century. While discussions about food safety practices and regulations have existed for a long time, the specific emphasis on "food safety culture" as a comprehensive approach to fostering a safe food environment gained prominence more recently. With FDA's Office of Food Policy and Response previously under the leadership of Frank Yiannas, author of Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System, it quickly became the buzzword of the food industry among the public regulatory sector, private certifying bodies, and food safety management scheme providers.4
In the early 2000s, there was a growing recognition that simply having well-defined processes and regulations in place was not sufficient to guarantee food safety. This led to a shift in focus toward the attitudes, behaviors, and values of individuals within food-related organizations. The idea of creating a strong food safety culture emerged as a way to address not only the technical aspects of food safety but also the human elements that contribute to safe food production and handling.
Culture plays a crucial role in shaping identities, guiding social interactions, and providing a sense of belonging and cohesion within a group. The problem with the idea that one can create, maintain, and objectively measure the culture within a food company is that culture is extremely complex and multifaceted. It encompasses various aspects of human life, including language, art, religion, social norms, cuisine, clothing, and more. Culture is both shared and learned, passed down from one generation to the next through social interactions and experiences. One cannot change an entire industry or validate a singular or collective "culture" to suggest it can provide efficacy within food safety programs. Culture is a construct, not a food safety tool. Any culture of employees within an organization lacking ethics will inevitably become one lacking integrity, which puts the consumer at risk.
Establishing a food safety culture, while a social construct, lacks effectiveness without a foundation of robust food safety ethics. To drive genuine progress, the food industry needs to integrate personal ethics centered around public health in relation to food. Otherwise, the industry will inevitably witness recurring instances of tragic and preventable consumer outbreaks and fatalities. In a so-called "adequate" food safety culture, an employee could be compelled to wash their hands merely due to the presence of a supervisor. However, if that same employee lacks intrinsic food safety ethics, then it becomes doubtful whether they would uphold these practices when unobserved in the absence of a supervisor reinforcing that food safety culture is not an effective program to reduce food safety failures.
Two factors contribute to the current stagnant state of the food industry, even in the face of increased illness outbreaks, recalls, and consumer awareness such as the public's discovery of dangerous levels of heavy metals in baby foods.5 First, individual accountability remains elusive, with consequences often being minimal or merely symbolic, such as nominal jail sentences or mild penalties combined with embarrassing media exposure. This is quite a small price to pay to accumulate gross wealth by illegal or unethical means. For major corporations, the norm is to absolve culpability by offering settlements—an insignificant gesture for multimillion-dollar entities cushioned by liability insurance and allocated legal funds. For some of these entities, which are often well-versed in the art of exploiting gaps, the call for implementing a food safety culture "program" can be as futile as providing a wolf with a sheep's disguise to guard the flock.
This dynamic is fueled by financial pursuits rather than ethical principles. The second factor lies in the collective attitude toward food. Until consumers and even industry insiders extend the reverence due to it, governmental impetus to enact pragmatic measures for genuine progress will remain absent. Tangible improvements in addressing foodborne illnesses, recalls, and safety breaches hinge on a transformation in how society values and respects the food that sustains us all.
Food Safety Negligence: A Criminal Offense
Several countries have detectives or entire units dedicated to food crimes. In the food industry, management commitment to food safety is demonstrated in a number of ways, one being the allocation of an appropriate budget to food safety departments. The same logic would apply to a country's government and its allocation of police resources dedicated to investigating food crimes. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK has a specialized National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) dedicated to investigating food-related criminal activities, including fraud, adulteration, and mislabeling.6 The Food Safety and Compliance Branch of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) oversees food safety, and various law enforcement agencies work together to investigate food-related offenses in Australia. The Carabinieri NAS (Nuclei Antisofisticazioni e Sanità), a specialized branch of the Italian military police, is responsible for investigating food fraud and food safety violations in Italy.7
The U.S. lacks a dedicated police force specialized in investigating food-related offenses. FDA holds jurisdiction over food regulation. Curiously, when complaints emerge regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the investigative entity lacks both the power to apprehend offenders and expertise in food safety. Instead, the agency responsible for responding to whistleblower complaints is the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA),8 which specializes in ensuring the physical safety of personnel within U.S. companies.
An absence of proper allocation for food safety during third-party audits, such as Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) schemes, would undoubtedly signify a lack of managerial commitment to food safety within a company, resulting in nonconformance. This scenario raises questions about the dedication of the U.S. to its consumer base. If someone were to maliciously spike my drink with poison at a bar, leading to my demise, charges of murder would likely follow. However, if a food business knowingly distributes contaminated food that results in multiple fatalities, they often face mere inconveniences.
These circumstances underscore a crucial need for comprehensive food ethics within the food industry. Professionals across all sectors of the food business in the U.S. require a firm grounding in appropriate food ethics to ensure public health and safety.
What Would You Do?
Alex, a seasoned quality control technician at a leading food manufacturing company, prides himself on maintaining impeccable product standards. During an inspection of canned vegetables, a minor anomaly catches Alex's attention: labels indicating organic origins seem mismatched. A closer investigation reveals a labeling mishap, where non-organic vegetables are mistakenly labeled as organic.
This predicament confronts Alex with an ethical dilemma. Reporting the error, initiating a recall, and safeguarding the company's reputation align with professional integrity. Yet, the complexities of the manufacturing industry—potential disruptions, resources wasted, and implications for colleagues and finances—add layers of uncertainty. Struggling to balance these considerations, Alex is torn between upholding principles of honesty and transparency and fearing the potential fallout for the company's operations and team.
Someone lacking a strong ethical framework might rationalize that consumers cannot definitively discern the organic status of the product, and the potential harm would be inconsequential. After all, what is the true extent of harm of ingesting a trace of non-organic pesticide residue? If Alex alerts management, the prospect of being terminated looms large. The company could grapple with a product recall and financial repercussions. Alex is fully aware that stepping forward would almost certainly cost him his job. This situation is critical, as he is reliant on the job, and losing it would mean losing health insurance—a pressing concern, as he and his wife are expecting a baby next month.
What course of action should Alex pursue? Would it be morally acceptable for Alex to postpone addressing the matter until after his wife gives birth, giving them time to stabilize their financial situation? Would such a delay be considered justifiable to Alex? More importantly, is this choice aligned with ethical principles? Can sending products with adulterated, misbranded, or misleading labels across state lines ever be considered ethically sound? Is it justifiable to sacrifice our ethical integrity to safeguard our jobs, our health insurance, or our social standing?
Imagine a scenario where everyone lacks a firm ethical foundation and readily compromises their values in work-related situations. What kind of world would that create? How might the concept of a "food safety culture" offer a solution to this problem? If you were in Alex's shoes, what decision would you make?
- U.S. Department of Justice. "U.S. v. Elizabeth Holmes, et al." December 12, 2022. https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndca/us-v-elizabeth-holmes-et-al.
- "DeLauro Shares Whistleblower Report, Contaminated Infant Formula Led to Hospitalizations and Deaths." U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro. April 28, 2022. https://delauro.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/icymi-delauro-shares-whistleblower-report-contaminated-infant-formula.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "FDA Investigation of Cronobacter Infections: Powdered Infant Formula (February 2022)." Current as of August 1, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/food/outbreaks-foodborne-illness/fda-investigation-cronobacter-infections-powdered-infant-formula-february-2022.
- FDA. "Food Safety Culture Systematic Literature Review." February 29, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/media/163588/download.
- U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. "Staff Report: New Disclosures Show Dangerous Levels of Toxic Heavy Metals in Even More Baby Foods." September 29, 2021. https://oversightdemocrats.house.gov/sites/democrats.oversight.house.gov/files/ECP%20Second%20Baby%20Food%20Report%209.29.21%20FINAL.pdf.
- UK Food Standards Agency. "National Food Crime Unit." July 22, 2021. https://www.food.gov.uk/about-us/national-food-crime-unit.
- Prevention of and Fight Against Crime Programme of the EU. "Fakeshare.eu." http://www.fakeshare.eu/en/partners/commodities-and-health-unit-italian-police-comando-dei-carabinieri-la-tutela-della-salute.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "OSHA Fact Sheet: Filing Whistleblower Complaints under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act." https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/OSHA3714.pdf.
Cori Muse is a Food Safety and Regulatory Consultant and the Owner of Muse Food Safety Solutions LLC. She is also an independent GFSI Auditor, an alumna of PepsiCo/Frito-Lay, and has an extensive background working in the food industry over 14 years.