The Coronavirus pandemic, why producing food is not like selling T-shirts, and technology’s role in outbreak investigation were highlights of a talk today by a food safety expert at the World Health Organization.

Peter Ben Embarek gave the John H. Silliker Lecture on this final day of the International Association for Food Protection’s (IAFP) annual conference and meeting.

When asked what was keeping him up at night, Ben Embarek said for the past few months it has been COVID-19 while on a previous occasion it was the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

“Even though it is a public health issue, it is an infectious disease, it also has a food-related element. They are both linked to how we are producing food. They both started in these environments where animals and humans are closely interacting in the process of producing food animals.”

Evolving COVID-19 situation
Ben Embarek said when Switzerland was locked down earlier this year the only shops open were pharmacies and supermarkets.

“This shows how critically important it was and still is to maintain our food supply, to make sure people still have access to food even though everything else is shut down. At that time it was clear that we needed to have guidance, recommendations, and tools to help industry and national food safety authorities to keep our food supply running and make sure we kept workers throughout the food production chain healthy. This guidance, after a few months, is already in need of updating showing how fast our understanding and knowledge around COVID is evolving.”

Another important element was the need to understand to what extent the virus can survive on food surfaces and food.

“We know it survives on frozen and refrigerated food and when these products are moving in international trade they start to create a problem as we have seen in recent months, in particular in China. There are regular findings of frozen imported products contaminated with the virus and they are taking trade measures against these products,” said Ben Embarek.

“It is true in many instances it is probably only the RNA we are detecting but apparently in some instances, viable viruses are also found and we know from experimental studies that the virus doesn’t lose viability during the freezing period of several weeks corresponding to normal trading patterns in international commerce.

“Another concerning element is in August, the Chinese CDC announced the conclusions of investigations into one of their largest outbreaks in Beijing in June where they had some 800 cases linked to a wholesale market. They concluded the virus was introduced through the frozen goods brought into the market. We haven’t seen any details from this investigation and to what extent transmission could have happened. We have to be a bit cautious and even if there it is not a huge risk or problem, we need to better understand what is happening under these conditions where we are handling frozen and refrigerated products in wet and humid environments.”

Same pathogens, different products
Ben Embarek also runs the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN).

“The trends we have seen in recent years is an increase in events involving traditional pathogens in new commodities such as outbreaks linked to fruits, vegetables, salads and increasingly they involve frozen berries being traded internationally,” he said.

“These are quite interesting because with new technologies and agricultural know-how berries are being produced cheaply all over the planet in places where hygiene and attention to water quality and irrigation are perhaps not what it should be. It illustrates the changes we are seeing in world production and the spread of production technologies without having the associated spread of tight control and high hygiene standards and that is unfortunately what is characterizing the food safety picture today. This disconnect between capacities to produce almost anything everywhere without having the associated high level of food control.”

The use of whole-genome sequencing helped in understanding the large South African Listeria outbreak in 2017 and 2018, said Ben Embarek.

“Without the use of this technology we would have had a much larger outbreak and it would have been much more difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find the source. At the same time as this large outbreak was unfolding, the country was also having a number of smaller outbreaks in the background with different strains of Listeria linked to different products. Without the use of WGS it would have been difficult to disentangle these different outbreaks from the large one and identify the source,” he said.

“It is not going to be the technology that will solve everything in the future but it will help detect and solve outbreaks much faster. Finding the source of an outbreak helps us understand what went wrong and each time we have that information we can correct and learn from these errors and problems we were not aware of in raw materials and processes. It will help us slowly build a safer food safety environment. It is true we will still need food microbiologists and people able to culture bacteria to understand the biology of bacteria and viruses in food and the environment.”

Food safety is not like selling T-shirts
Certain food safety regulators, producers, and researchers are learning from these events but there is a large group that doesn’t seem to be learning anything, said Ben Embarek.

“Clearly there are too many cowboys out there producing and distributing food that should not be allowed to do that because managing food hygiene and safety is something that requires a certain level of understanding of the problems and seriousness of dealing with these things,” he said.

“It is not like producing a T-shirt where if you cut corners and the consumer is not happy with your T-shirt it will last three months and next time he or she will not buy the same T-shirt but you will still be producing T-shirts and no harm will have been done.

“If you cut corners when producing the food you might end up killing somebody or someone’s baby and that is far more serious. Unfortunately, we seem to have the same laissez-faire attitude towards allowing who can produce and who cannot and that is something that will and must change, we cannot continue to have that type of dual level of seriousness in the way we produce food. We are in a globalized environment where any food product can end up on any table around the globe.”

There also needs to be a way of engaging different stakeholders, according to Ben Embarek.

“Food producers are sitting on an enormous goldmine of information through all the data they are generating compared to national authorities, inspection services, and research institutions. The bulk of the data is with industry and unfortunately, that goldmine is not being tapped, we are just throwing away all this data after it is used for the purpose for which they are generated and we forget that if we combine with data generated elsewhere and by others we could have a better understanding of our food environment.

“We are still, in 2020, in the dark when we look at our food supply and environments, we have small windows of light here and there where we have a semi ok understanding of what is in our food and how it is evolving in terms of hazards and risks but the vast majority of information is not visible.”

Ben Embarek also spoke about the challenges involved in feeding a growing world population, food waste, food production by robots, and changing diets with a move away from meat.

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