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Change is what’s predictable about the future of food safety

Opinion

The third-annual Food Safety and Analysis Congress, held earlier this week at Cripps Court Auditorium on the beautiful campus of the University of Cambridge in England, brought together leaders from industry and academia to discuss the latest on foodborne illness surveillance and food fraud. I traveled to the event to serve as one of only three speakers representing the United States.

The congress chair, Dr. Arun Bhunia from Purdue University, stressed the event’s unofficial theme of change as he urged that continued advancements in science be put to use earlier in the overall food production lifecycle. While retail surveillance is too reactive and the active screening and testing in post-harvest facilities has not shown to reduce outbreaks and recalls, advancement in pre-harvest surveillance technology is needed to proactively mitigate the risks from pathogens and toxins.

Michele Suman, from Barilla Research Labs in Italy, continued with the notion of change, sharing how changes in technologies and in management approaches have impacted the reduction of mycotoxins for his company. One such change in mitigation of mycotoxins is in physical and chemical processing. Here, though they start with commodities that are already below limits, a better understanding of the process impacts and how they may actually increase mycotoxin levels has resulted in the company taking steps to further reduce levels so as not to later exceed them.

change-406Another area of change discussed by presenters was climate change. Dr. Rudolf Krska, from Vienna, Austria, showed how studies of Aflatoxin B1 in maize produced data that hint at changes in temperatures forcing plant pathogens and pests to move locations at about 1.5 to 3 miles per year from the equator to the poles. Dr. John O’Brien, deputy head of the Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, echoed the concerns over climate change as part of the changing reality framing food safety for consumers. O’Brien reminded the audience, however, that while science cannot undo the effects of climate change, it can be used to reduce the impact on food.

I delivered a presentation which focused on a different kind of climate change: political change. This election season has been notable for candidates’ lack of even mentioning food safety, or even implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act this month. Experts agree that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will most likely have a negative overall impact on food safety and on environmental policies. Another point concerning recent political topics is that food safety over larger geographical regions will most likely suffer from building barriers (or “walls”), as well as from countries exiting unions.

Food fraud dominated the discussion of change on day two. Grant Cropper, a compliance training manager in the U.K., stated that with the prevalence of “Big Data,” supply chain risk and resilience processes need to see advancements in terms of integrity and assurance of food supply for fraudulent food. Allergens and labeling serve as major driving factors as incidents throughout Europe have shown significant deficiencies in leadership and intelligence gathering. And failure to place more emphasis on food safety assurance now will inevitably lead to another food fraud or safety incident like the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

Cropper shared that a recent three-year survey of U.K. food companies revealed 63 percent submitted inadequate HACCP plans and procedures, while 74 percent of product recall and crisis management documents needed improvement. As a result, food crimes are causing changes in insurance for food companies. Cropper’s suggestions to resolve these deficiencies include more needed changes: greater education and greater government support to small and medium companies.

Food crime is not new and has long existed; however, the severe dishonesty behind food crimes is viewed as a recent trend. Today food is being seen by criminals as a means of making money. The horsemeat incident awoke a need for national leadership on food crime. Proactivity is seen as having been absent at the time of that scandal. Andy Morling, head of the U.K.’s new National Food Crime Unit, has the job of looking for it before it finds consumers again.

Morling discussed how his job is not about making new laws or new punishments as much as ensuring that the government can better use existing laws pertaining to fraud. The certainty of a punishment for food criminals is a more important tool than the severity of the punishment. His unit has a three-pronged mission: to pursue (detection), to protect the food industry, and to prevent people from becoming involved in food crime.

John Coady, chief audit and investigations manager for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, emphasized the current economic pressures behind food fraud by sharing how his agency found companies using suppliers known to be behind the horsemeat scandal or similar incidents. One recent change is that consumers are no longer the only ones to suffer from consequences. Companies desiring to buy at lower and lower prices “for the purpose of vast profits” are now facing significant consequences. This is a shift in the judicial priority on such cases. Coady pointed to the words of one judge presiding over a trial on food in which he stated that profits from food fraud are funding organized crime.

Two interesting Q&A takeaways include the merging of food fraud and food defense as a national effort, as well as the role of technology in communication. Attendees and presenters agree that the overlapping concerns of food fraud and defense are many and that, through combining, emphasis and support on one end will only improve the other.

O’Brien reminded us of the words of George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” While new communication technologies allow for better collection of data, they certainly open opportunities for greater communication regarding food for consumers.

My concern over this notion is the shortsightedness with the sole use of printed URLs or QR Codes for informing U.S. consumers (as opposed to actually printing consumer information.) This can be seen with the Roberts-Stabenow Compromise Bill, passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama back in July, to create a mandatory national labeling standard for GMO foods. What good is a label if a large percentage of consumers cannot read or access the information due to our digital divide? Further, will this use of URLs or QR Codes set a precedent that allows companies to replace safe handling instructions or allergen warnings with such limited-access technologies?

(Editor’s note: Food Safety News was a media partner of this year’s Food Safety and Analysis Congress.)

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