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Food Safety: The Butterfly Effect


By Paul A. Hall, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

The “Butterfly Effect" describes how a very small incident can have a very big, disproportionate and unexpected effect on something else—something so far removed from the beginning of the event chain that the cause appears to be unrelated to the effect.

In the world of food production, processing and handling, examples of the Butterfly Effect abound, especially when tied to issues of food safety. A single action (i.e., not washing one’s hands) or a sole ingredient, say peanut butter used in thousands of further-processed products, might serve as the vehicle for harmful microorganisms that sicken hundreds in numerous states, or even in other countries. The food industry has evolved to more centralized food processing, which provides a multitude of business and quality benefits. But now, when a failure in food safety systems occurs, more people become ill, outbreaks occur over a wider geographic range, and more product is involved in resulting recalls than ever before.

Product developers have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on food safety early in the manufacturing process. Here are a few factors that directly impact the safety of today’s food supply.

Consider the source. Sourcing of ingredients and commodities outside of the United States has skyrocketed over the past two decades. Because the world’s population is projected to grow to more than 7.8 billion people by the year 2025, and an estimated 20 million acres of farmland is lost annually around the world due to growing populations and urbanization, producing our food necessitates more large-scale farming and ranching practices that, in turn, put pressure on the environment. For example, about 130 times more animal waste is produced than human waste—roughly 5 tons for every U.S. citizen—and animal waste and manure have been the source of foodborne contamination in the past.

This may seem far-removed from product development, but consider this: When you choose an ingredient, you may not have control over how much manure is produced, but you can choose suppliers whose operations consider that factor and have systems in place to mitigate potential contamination.

Consider the consumer. Demographic changes, such as international migration and aging of the population, impact the safety of our food supply. Changing ethnicity patterns also result in changing food preferences and preparation practices that can result in food-safety issues. Other segments of the population, including pregnant women, neonates and the immunocompromised, are vulnerable, as well. Overall, at any given time, 20% to 25% of the population is at increased risk for foodborne disease.

By choosing food components with lower risk profiles, product developers can have a critical impact on public health. Formulating products that take into consideration the sensitivities and cultural food-handling habits of a changing, growing population can also help mitigate food-safety risk down the road.

Consider the science. The trend toward consumption of organic, natural and minimally processed foods has led to increased food-safety challenges as barriers to harmful pathogens are reduced or nonexistent. Also, foodborne pathogens have evolved a variety of strategies to ensure their survival, such as acid resistance in E. coli O157:H7. Seasonality has been described for a number of foodborne pathogens, and the distribution of outbreaks has been influenced by El Niño weather pattern changes.

Staying on top of developments in food science can go a long way in helping make effective formulation and processing choices. For example, if you know that cinnamon has antimicrobial properties against E. coli in certain types of products, you might choose it over another spice when formulating a new minimally processed product that is at risk for E. coli contamination.

We can’t always know what impact our day-to-day decisions will have farther down the line, but we do know that a small event can have a big impact.

Paul A. Hall, Ph.D., is CEO of AIV Microbiology & Food Safety Consultants LLC. An internationally recognized food safety expert, Hall has more than 35 years experience in the food and beverage industry with companies such as Kraft Foods, Anheuser-Busch and Ralston Purina. For more information, visit or contact him at

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This food safety article is sponsored by ConAgra Mills.

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