When you buy food for your family, you want peace of mind that the food you buy is safe to eat. One of the primary goals of the PA Department of Agriculture is to help those who sell and serve food across the state eliminate risks that could make their customers sick. An extensive team of well-trained experts has your back — or rather, your stomach — when it comes to ensuring that food sold in Pennsylvania is safe to eat.
Our Bureau of Food Safety works every day to help ensure that the food you buy in restaurants, farm markets, grocery stores, food trucks, and other retail food outlets is prepared, stored, and served safely. In some instances, a local or county health department does the licensing and inspections. But anywhere you go in Pennsylvania, food safety inspectors carefully review a checklist when they inspect a business for risk factors set forth in the PA Food Code — a set of standards adopted from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Model Food Code. These national standards are rigorously and regularly reviewed by experts and are based on 1)risks that could lead to foodborne illness, and 2)record-keeping and other retail management practices that help prevent food safety emergencies and quickly pinpoint and eliminate the source in the event a foodborne illness or emergency happens.
A much broader team of experts — Pennsylvania's Rapid Response Team — springs into swift, coordinated action when there is a suspected instance of food contamination or foodborne illness, determining what safety measures, product recalls, consumer notifications and other actions may be necessary to prevent further harm. The team also does preventative education and readiness exercises to ensure that incident responses are quick, contained, and eliminate further public health risks. A partnership across many state, federal, and local agencies, the team engages not just expert employees, but the department's food safety laboratories and testing labs at other state and federal agencies to pinpoint the source and extent of an illness or contamination, and quickly eliminate risks of further harm. The team includes emergency management, law enforcement, food safety, environmental, and public health entities. Pennsylvania's food supply is a complex system that crosses state lines, so the partnership engages other states' governments as well.
The PA Rapid Response Team's work extends beyond incidents at the retail level to contamination or illness that may have originated in the environment – like a water source potentially contaminated in an accident – or contaminants in the animal feed supply, or at the manufacturing stage.
Through a tight public health network, the team responds quickly with investigations and follow-up testing when physicians report a patient or patients showing symptoms of foodborne illness. Their recent work has included testing raw milk products to determine the cause of illness; tracing the source of contaminated products; and incidents when routine food safety testing, or a notification from a manufacturer have indicated a mislabeled product, undetected allergen, or potentially harmful ingredient inadvertently included in a product. Resulting product recalls are issued, including any location where consumers may have purchased food that could harm them, and direct notification to customers known to have purchased affected products. But in many cases, the team has removed the risk before it ever reaches any consumer.
You may see the results of their work in a product recall circulated in the media or posted in stores when specific people who purchased an item cannot be pinpointed. But you may not see their work. And we hope you never have to.
Know that there is an extensive, well-trained team of experts responding to any incident and helping to ensure that food sold in Pennsylvania is safe.
You can also check out the inspection history of restaurants and other retail food outlets, find out who inspects and licenses restaurants where you live, and find lots of data about food safety inspections, that can be filtered by location, time period, type of violation, and more at agriculture.pa.gov here: Retail Food Inspection Reports (pa.gov) or download the free EatSafePA app in your app store to check out restaurant inspection reports on the go.
The PA Food Safety Rapid Response Team wishes you a happy, healthy National Food Safety Education Month! Eat Safe PA!