To reduce risk to food safety and consumer health, the MDA began a study in 2018 on the occurrence of foodborne illness risk factors, or those food handling practices found by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to contribute to most foodborne illness outbreaks. This study is a long-term endeavor, and the purpose is to:
- determine the start-point or baseline occurrence of each risk factor,
- identify the risk factors most in need of attention and develop ways to reduce their occurrence, and
- monitor the occurrence for trends over time and determine how well efforts to reduce occurrence are working.
This study is part of the MDA Retail Food Program’s quality management system, which is based in nationally recognized voluntary program standards developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many state and local food safety programs throughout the United States have begun risk factor studies, to include the FDA.
What is a Risk Factor Study?
A risk factor survey is the collection of data over a distinct period to show how often certain food safety practices were done, either properly or improperly. Food safety practices involved in the survey, if done improperly, contribute to the occurrence of foodborne illness risk factors. A single survey is generally part of a broader study meant to monitor certain food safety practices and the occurrence of risk factors over a much longer period. So, an agency may do an initial survey to determine a start-point or baseline measure and do additional surveys to help assess trends over time.
Summary of MDA 2018 Retail Risk Factor Baseline Study Report
Preventing illness from food is a shared goal within the retail food sector. This includes industry, regulatory, academia, and other stakeholders. Food is best protected when informed workers take the steps necessary to control hazards while food is received, stored, prepared, held, and displayed. This is supported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research which finds that certain food handler practices contribute to the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks. These practices fall into five broad categories known as foodborne illness risk factors. They focus on areas including food sources, cooking, food temperatures, sources of contamination, and hand hygiene. Systematically reducing the occurrence of the risk factors reduces the risk to food safety and consumer health.
In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) began a study to better understand the occurrence of foodborne illness risk factors in retail food businesses. Inspectors collected data from 325 randomly selected deli, meat, seafood, and produce facilities on-site from July 2018 to August 2019. To be considered for the study, these facilities had to engage in several food handling activities that increase risk to food safety. Inspectors used a uniform inspection data sheet that enabled them to assess how well food handlers performed practices linked to the risk factors.
Overall, this baseline study found a high number of safe food handling practices in most foodborne illness risk factors. No single risk factor occurred at a high level, but there are opportunities for targeted improvement within each type of facility.
The risk factors with the safest outcomes included:
- Obtaining foods from safe sources (i.e. not prepared in a home)
- Cooking foods to the required temperatures
- Hand hygiene (i.e. not touching ready-to-eat foods with bare hands)
The risk factors with highest unsafe outcomes included:
- Food temperatures and storage, specifically date marking open refrigerated food held for more than a day
- Sources of contamination (i.e. unsanitized equipment used to prepare food)
Results of this survey are part of a long-term study and efforts to increase knowledge and reduce the occurrence of practices linked to foodborne illness risk factors. To do this, the MDA is developing resources and other tools to aid in outreach, education, and assessment efforts. Current food safety fact sheets are being translated into multiple languages to increase information access and knowledge. The MDA developed a needs survey for retail food establishments to help identify specific safety topics and methods of delivery to best suit the needs of businesses. In addition, the MDA developed compliance tools to assist food businesses find and document solutions to specific practices linked to foodborne illness risk factors.
Most gaps or deficiencies are readily corrected with education. The goal is lasting compliance with science-based food safety practices. The MDA will conduct another survey in a few years to see how well efforts to reduce the occurrence of risk factors are working.