Inspections key to safe food supply in Manatee, state and U.S.

nwilliams@bradenton.comOctober 17, 2012 

MANATEE -- Every year, one out of six Americans becomes sick due to food-borne diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 128,000 Americans become hospitalized and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases each year.

So far this year, two isolated cases of food-borne outbreaks have been reported in Manatee County. There were 17 cases of a suspected outbreak in January and five cases of a suspected outbreak in May, according to Jessica Hammonds, spokeswoman for the State Department of Health.

Food inspection is key, and in Manatee, an area known for its agricultural exports, growers and multiple agencies are held responsible for monitoring the bulk of foods sold to the public.

"The importance of having proper inspections is that bacteria and other pathogens are so common and easily spread, that if the proper procedures aren't followed, the risk of spreading increases," said Samantha Kennedy, with the Manatee County Extension Office.

The Florida Division of Food Safety conducts inspections and turns the information and possible enforcement actions over to the FDA, said Brenda Morris, environmental administrator for the division.

"These risk-based inspections are used to meet the inspection frequency for FDA as well as the Division of Food Safety," Morris said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has the responsibility for meat and poultry processing companies while the FDA regulates all other food processing businesses. Each agency has full authority over their respective programs.

Morris said the division employs 115 field inspectors across the state, two of whom work in Manatee County.

Inspectors test the water quality on the property, ensure workers are cleaning their hands correctly and that products are being handled properly.

"Over the last 10 years, the awareness of food safety has grown," said Bob Spencer, vice president of West Coast Tomato, which is based in Palmetto. "The private sector is demanding they be tested."

In 2009, 1,593 food and waterborne illness complaints were reported in Florida.

Spencer said inspections are vital to a company's reputation.

"You would lose your customer base if you didn't pass," he said. "The vast majority would put you on your non-purchase list."

Some Manatee farmers choose to use third-party food auditors.

Shelby King, whose family sells various fruits and vegetables wholesale from their farm in East Bradenton, said many restaurants that purchase their goods require a third-party food auditor. King, whose family also grows blueberries on 28 acres of land, said it brings peace of mind to producers.

"It's also good for customers to know we use inspections," she said.

Steritech, a nationwide private inspection company, is certified to conduct third-party audits for retailers and food suppliers.

"Some retailers want their own standards and we audit to their standards," said Rachel Lego, marketing director for Steritech, which is based in North Carolina. "Third party audits help them keep track of their supply chain."

The Suncoast Food Alliance connects 18 farmers from Tampa to Venice with roughly 32 food establishments in the Tampa Bay area. Founder John Matthews, who previously worked for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said the majority of the groups' producers are small farmers. Small farmers, he said, inspect their own produce and supply healthier goods.

"Real small farms do it themselves," Matthews said. "In my opinion, I think the farmers should do it themselves. Small farms can put more eyes on products. The larger production companies are going too fast and the processing is too fast. These people are really on top of it and these people really care about it."

In the past, the county extension office offered food safety training to Manatee growers and packers, but due to funding, the training has not been offered this year.

Certification is required in Florida for food managers, those who handle food at establishments such as hospitals and child care facilities.

The University of Florida's Food Safety and Quality Program offers training to those food managers through its Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension offices. Following the completion of an eight-hour training course, which includes passing an exam, food managers receive a five-year certification.

Manatee's extension office provides four food manager training courses each year.

"The stuff they learn through the basic curriculum are the basic food principles of food handling procedures to avoid risk of spreading food-borne illnesses to community," said Kennedy, who conducts the training sessions.

Kennedy recommends consumers read the date on the products, always take from the back of shelves where the newer items are placed and save refrigerated and frozen for last when filling your basket. Kennedy said a two-hour window is the recommended time to leave food at room temperature.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams

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