ABSTRACT

The topic of food safety continues to receive increased attention and has ramifications on various human, environmental, policy, and economic levels worldwide. By garnering feedback from 30 food industry experts, this study was undertaken to identify the most critical issues facing the food industry in relation to food safety. According to expert opinion and after three rounds of Delphi inquiry, food contamination detection, outbreaks, and prevention along with governmental oversight, education for and communication with consumers and employees, and globalization were identified as the main areas at the forefront of food safety. Delphi and constant comparative research methods are explained, and suggestions on how to make meaning from the results to progress in this area are discussed.

HIGHLIGHTS
  • Experts identified 42 critical safety issues currently facing the food industry.

  • Contamination, government involvement, education, and globalization are top issues.

  • Issues also have themes related to technology, DNA sequencing, and emerging trends.

  • Government oversight for outbreaks is a priority area of challenge and opportunity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2) estimates that “48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States” alone. Thus, prevalence of food safety research is indicative of worldwide public health, economic, and political concerns (3, 19, 24). Research revolves around microbial and chemical contamination, food adulteration, misuse of food additives, mislabeling, genetic modifications, and dated food (12, 15 ). Actual and perceived risks in these areas are heightened and “the food market increases internationalization of health risks as the food supply chains cross multiple national borders” (12). In addition to the economic impact (25) and hazards revealed by food recalls and outbreaks connected to specific food products, companies, and countries (1, 5), food allergies, insect-based food, advanced food processing technologies, traceability, and a plethora of other topics and innovations continue to propel food safety into the world spotlight (11, 12). Moreover, risks associated with food consumption have been found to be “multidimensional, being conceptualized in terms of risk to: human health, the environment, the economy, animal health and future generations” (20).

With this added complexity, “it has become difficult for the general public to assess risks using traditional methods . . . [now] consumers have to rely on the trust they have towards producers, retailers and regulators to ensure potential health impacts are minimized” (17). This is especially true as generational gaps exist between farmers and their offspring, latter generations who want to know the origins and production procedures related to their food after being startled by high-profile food safety situations (23). Thus, demands for food industries and markets to provide transparent information and be held accountable at all levels has increased. Consumers are more likely to want additional information about elements such as food ingredients, nutritional value, production procedures, and environmental waste. Although increased concern and knowledge may not equate to safe food preparation, consumption, or storage practices by individuals (9, 19, 24), perceptions of food safety affect purchase intentions and the perception of health benefits related to food items (29). Additionally, these issues affect not only consumers, but food handlers and production workers as well (16, 27). Thus, policymakers, food safety leaders, and those in positions to influence food markets have a responsibility to provide edible products safe for consumption. This obligation is reflected in efforts to create systematic oversight for food quality and safety (3) and to make risk communication more effective (17, 20, 24).

The study at hand explored critical food safety issues facing the food industry from the perspective of industry leaders, whose knowledge about food safety is applicable to a variety of contexts. The study extends existing research (12) and provides an opportunity to offer supportive, and potentially additional, information based on what key decision makers are experiencing in practice. Representatives from food product companies known worldwide were invited to share food safety insights. This type of sample assists with a gap in food safety research, in which much has been published about consumers. Whereas knowledge about consumer preference and confidence related to food safety is necessary, investigating viewpoints from those who oversee food operations can add much needed perspective and understanding to information shared with consumers. Such a perspective can inform aspects of food safety that consumers will inevitably benefit from, such as aspects related to market research, product development, and food measures that promote well-being and overall health. Findings can also inform research trajectories and add to the awareness of current and future trends related to food safety, to which both food industry researchers and practitioners should be attentive. Additionally, “most of the [consumer food safety] research focuses on home food safety knowledge, attitudes and practices” (3, 19). This study views food safety through an industry-wide, macrolevel lens in a way that bridges research and application. Such research is needed now more than ever as all consumers and leaders alike make societal shifts, thanks to influences from a COVID-19 era where cleanliness, workforce disruptions, and supply and demand food issues will continue to require adaptation and foresight.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Due to the possibility of obtaining powerful results from a consensus process, the Delphi technique (6) was chosen as the most appropriate methodology for this research inquiry. As mentioned, food safety issues affect populations and settings worldwide; thus, the Delphi technique lays a foundation to garner multiple perspectives about such a complex, far-reaching, and multidimensional topic. The method consists of one or more open-ended questions that are answered by research participants who are considered to be a panel of experts because of their connection to, experience with, and knowledge of the topic at hand (4, 6). The panel then participates in a series of repeated questioning to generate agreed-upon information based on the original open-ended responses. Such information can inform what trends may be on the horizon along with what challenges and opportunities currently exist and where to direct change efforts (18).

For the specifics of this study, 30 panel experts that are affiliated with the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia participated and represented well-known food organizations that covered different areas of the food industry. Organizations included a global beverage retail corporation, a multinational consumer goods business, a multinational food manufacturing company, and one of the world's largest coffee shop establishments. A Fortune 500 American supermarket chain, multinational protein-specific food corporation, global fast food restaurant franchise, and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were also represented in the Delphi process. Panelists held positions such as director of food safety and vice president, leadership roles privy to theoretical situations and practical applications relating to food safety matters. One representative from each unique organization was invited to respond, with the exception of the CDC, from which three representatives were invited. Twenty-one panelists were male, and nine were female. To increase the breadth of potential options for consideration, the first round of data collection also included responses from 25 faculty members and staff from the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. Increasing the scope of potential ideas for consideration in subsequent rounds of analysis is consistent with the intent of the Delphi process. Specifically, “if experts are all professionals in the same area, bias toward a professional agenda may emerge” (10); the inclusion of experts from both academic and professional domains was intentional to minimize potential bias.

Due to the distance of research participants, administering an on-line Delphi process via the Qualtrics survey tool was both convenient and effective. Panelists were contacted using Dillman's (8) Tailored Design Method. Specifically, panelists were sent a prenotice message prior to survey distribution. Following the prenotice, panelists were sent a personalized invitation 2 days later. A series of at least three reminder messages were sent every 3 to 7 days to individuals that had not yet responded. This procedure was replicated for the entire Delphi process, which consisted of three rounds. Response rates for rounds one, two, and three were 67, 80, and 73%, respectively, for the expert panel.

In the first round, panelists were given the following open-ended prompt: “In your opinion, what are the most critical issues facing the food industry (related to food safety)?” They were asked to respond by providing a word or short description to briefly describe their top five critical issues. Version 7.0.23 of the Dedoose data analysis software (7) was used to analyze the qualitative responses, which were then used as the basis for a questionnaire that panelists received in round two. The purpose of round two was to make the list generated in round one narrower and more precise. To accomplish this, panelists were presented with the combined list of critical food safety issues and asked to rate the level of importance they would give to each issue. After panelists rated level of importance using a 5-point Likert type scale (1 = not at all important, 2 = somewhat important, 3 = important, 4 = very important, 5 = extremely important), responses were analyzed using SPSS version 25 (IBM Corporation, Armonk, NY). Mean scores were calculated for each issue, and those with a score greater than 3.5 (10) were retained for round three. Remaining issues were used to construct the questionnaire panelists received in the third and final round, which was administered to garner consensus and generate a final list of critical issues created by the food industry experts. When provided with the final questionnaire, panelists were asked to express whether each issue should be retained by choosing a binary response of “yes” or “no.” SPSS version 25 was used once more to analyze the data. Each issue with a collective agreement percentage greater than 70% was retained and included on the final list of critical food safety issues.

After creating a finalized list of critical issues related to food safety, it was important to generate meaning from the Delphi feedback in an effort to suggest paths of forward progress. To achieve this, the constant comparative method (CCM (13)) was enacted as the last stage of data analysis. The CCM can inform how researchers communicate findings and how scholars and practitioners reviewing the results can expound upon and apply what the study offers to the field. As a long-standing technique used in both qualitative and quantitative research, the CCM is used when thematic analysis of data proves beneficial. Much like the Delphi process, the CCM process builds upon itself because it requires the research analyst to continuously compare data points in a certain manner. Specifically, data are compared with other data to generate codes, or descriptive labels, based on data similarities and distinctions. Codes are then compared with each other, and the analyst creates categories based on higher-order themes garnered from the codes. In an iterative process, data, codes, and categories are constantly compared and contrasted against each other until the analyst has a better, more conceptually useful grasp on what themes best express the essence of the data as a whole. For this particular study, the CCM process was done by hand, resulting in color-coded groupings and iterations taking place over a series of days. Eventual use of Microsoft Word software (Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA) allowed for more organization when the process required more cognitive delineations. At the conclusion of the study, the results were shared with the panel of experts for review.

RESULTS

In round one of the Delphi process, 107 unique responses were received from the panel as a result of the question prompt. As a result of the panel's work in round two, the critical issue given the highest level of importance was “connectivity with government agencies during outbreak investigations” (M = 4.59) compared with the issue with the lowest mean, which was “many commercials about fast food on the TV” (M = 1.41). In preparation for the third and final Delphi round, 50 items were removed from the list due to the 3.5 mean cutoff point, and 57 issues, shown in Table 1, were retained. Of the 57 retained issues, 35 were sourced from the expert panel, and the other 22 came from the academic respondents included in the first round of the process. The top 10 issues revolved around themes of communication with both regulatory agencies and consumers, the handling of outbreak investigations, workforce preparation, and globalization.

TABLE 1

Delphi round two results: level of importance for critical food safety issues (57 items)a

Delphi round two results: level of importance for critical food safety issues (57 items)a
Delphi round two results: level of importance for critical food safety issues (57 items)a

In round three, when panelists were asked to express their level of agreement about the 57 issues, consensus levels ranged from 40 to 100%. After the 70% agreement level was administered, 42 issues were retained whereas 15 issues fell below the cutoff point. As seen in Table 2, only two issues, concerning bioinformatics and detection of implicated food, received 100% agreement from panelists. Nineteen issues received 90 to 95% consensus from the panel, 13 received 81 to 86%, and 8 received 71 to 76%. Of the 42 retained issues, 26 were sourced from the expert panel, and the other 16 came from the academic respondents included in the first round of the process. Similar to round two findings, top issues were related to communication, contamination and outbreaks, and the role of regulatory agencies. In contrast, issues that rose to the forefront in round three involved pathogens, risk awareness, novel ingredients, and sanitation.

TABLE 2

Delphi round three results: level of consensus for critical food safety issues (42 items)

Delphi round three results: level of consensus for critical food safety issues (42 items)
Delphi round three results: level of consensus for critical food safety issues (42 items)

The CCM (13) was used to create initial codes, or labels, such as “identification/detection of compromised food” and “regulatory agencies.” Names for all codes were derived from how experts worded the critical issues. Initially, similar groupings of codes morphed into nine higher-order categories: General Contamination, Detection, Outbreaks, Prevention, Being Proactive, Governmental Oversight, Literacy/Education for Consumers, New Faculty & Students, and Globalization. However, as codes were compared to categories and categories were compared with other categories, it became clearer that five categories were interrelated and were all specifically associated with contamination. Therefore, a decision was made to make Contamination one overarching category with four subcategories. Due to having similar codes, four other categories were also combined to make two categories. For example, Being Proactive was merged with Prevention and New Faculty & Students was merged with Literacy/Education for Consumers. As shown in Table 3, the final list of thematic categories was reduced from nine to seven and illustrates both the similarities and distinctions found in the data: Contamination: General (8 issues), Contamination: Detection (4 issues), Contamination: Outbreaks (5 issues), Contamination: Prevention (12 issues), Governmental Oversight (7 issues), Consumer/Employee Education & Communication (4 issues), and Globalization (2 issues).

TABLE 3

Results thematically categorized based on critical food safety issues (42 items)

Results thematically categorized based on critical food safety issues (42 items)
Results thematically categorized based on critical food safety issues (42 items)

DISCUSSION

A notable observation about the findings is a high degree of overlap among critical issues. Not only were codes combined to create new categories, but 26% of data were assigned two or more codes during the first round of coding in the initial CCM process. Eventually, codes that overlapped with multiple categories were placed in the category that best explained the main sentiment of each critical issue; the words and perceived contexts given by experts to convey each critical issue were the main considerations in finalizing the categories. It was also observed that some of the original codes indicated overarching themes that resembled patterns, or recurring themes, rather than distinct categories. In particular, three patterns relating to technology, DNA sequencing, and information considered new and emerging were observed in the data for at least nine critical issues. For instance, the recommendation “Combining old-school culture techniques with new age big data mining, ‘blockchain,' whole genome sequencing, etc.” is an example of a critical issue where all three patterns overlap. Sentiments from the study's panel of experts underscore the importance of the food industry as a whole investing time, money, and effort into staying abreast of the technology, laboratory science, and contamination factors of the future.

Another notable overlap is that of the Contamination: Prevention category; as noted in Table 3, it has the most items overall but is also tied with the Governmental Oversight category for number of issues with 90 to 100% agreement. Critical issues, such as “Whole genome sequencing in outbreaks investigation—current regulatory environment does not foster its use in industry,” express the influence regulatory agencies have over how food safety outbreaks are handled and prevented. Due to the significant overlap of level of importance and agreement from the Delphi process and codes from the CCM process, it is suggested that governmental oversight's role in detection, response, and prevention of food contamination is the most probable food safety direction to move toward. Collaborations that leverage the resources and cooperation of academic, government, and industry experts would help create future strategic, integrated, and holistic oversight procedures (22, 23). Continued effort in this direction must incorporate global themes of technology, DNA sequencing, and emerging food safety trends. Nuanced critical issues should also be taken into consideration.

A limitation of the study is that some of the issues provided by the expert panel may not have been offered with sufficient supporting information to truly clarify individual experts' frame of reference. Thus, future research could benefit from having experts, rather than researchers alone, participate in a CCM process. This could help ensure that experts' context and intent are taken into consideration and that analyzed categories and themes, not just the issues themselves, are accurately agreed upon. Additionally, in acknowledging consumer demands for changes such as preservative-free food, experts also acknowledge the challenges that come with providing such food using safe, pathogen-reducing methods (21). Due to likely discrepancies between consumer and expert food safety priorities, a similar study involving consumers is recommended and necessary for the understanding of public perceptions (14, 26, 28). Findings of the current study underscore “the complexity of [the] inter-relationship between risk and trust in the food chain” (17) and the importance of building additional trust with regulatory agencies through collaborations and communication initiatives that are in the best interests of the food industry and its consumers.

This study's scope did not involve finding detailed explanations for the participants' responses, so the interpretation of some of our findings are limited to speculating about their rationale. The top two issues identified were those that involve communication and linking with regulatory agencies, in particular during outbreaks. Based on informal conversations with some of the participants, they see a great opportunity in promoting information exchange and setting up formal communication channels with the CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to lead to a more coordinated response during outbreaks. This coordination might eventually lead to reducing the public health and economic impact of events such as outbreaks and recalls.

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