The evolving systems for buying and selling food online will have implications for food safety, according to two reports published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The first report looks at the impact of evolving food service business models and online providers on food safety and regulation. It covers third-party platforms for food ordering, online marketplaces, dark kitchens, direct-to-consumer options and rapid delivery solutions.
As digital platforms and retailers move into new market areas, the responsibilities for food safety and consumer protection are becoming blurred, found the analysis by the University of Cambridge.
The report recommends that FSA adopt a proactive anticipatory role in supporting industry to include food safety from the start of these novel business models.
With so many new entrants and ad-hoc traders in the market, often with only a small virtual presence and operating from dark or home kitchens, monitoring and oversight is challenging, according to the report. Even the main online ordering and delivery platforms are failing to fulfill requirements such as providing full details on ingredients, nutrition, and allergens.
The risk of uncertified vendors, particularly small and local ones, operating under the radar of FSA and local authorities is high in certain parts of the system and raises food safety, fraud and food crime concerns. If producers use direct to consumer channels, they may get away with selling food without a registration or compliance with food hygiene ratings.
The increasing complexity of supply chain networks increases the likelihood of risks, and the potential for incidents at a small part of the chain to have far reaching consequences, according to the report. Risk may come from unregistered or fraudulent vendors or from selling food without information on its origin, ingredients or allergens.
Dark kitchens, web-based delivery platforms, and online food and general marketplaces are considered to have a high potential to negatively impact food safety. Reasons include aggregation of deliveries to optimize productivity may pose cross-contamination risks and a dark kitchen may process 2,000 meals per day so there is a risk of an incident affecting a large number of consumers, the report states.
Medium impact areas are home kitchens, and smaller direct-to-consumer producers and processors, and social media marketplaces and community food sharing platforms for consumer-to-consumer exchanges.
Researchers suggest changing the status of food platforms from technology companies to food business operators and shifting responsibility from vendors that are listed on platforms to the platforms themselves for issues such as allergens and hygiene ratings.
The second report found digital platforms in the food and drink industry have evolved rapidly. Consumers are increasingly buying food via third-party intermediaries, known as aggregators, from a range of vendors.
Digital platforms are relatively new, with many launching in the past decade. This means there is a knowledge gap in government about how they work and impact the landscape in which they operate, according to the analysis.
Product, technology and data company, Foundry4 researched digital platforms within the food sector to help the FSA to make informed decisions.
It found platforms such as Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats can have an influence, such as specifying minimum food hygiene rating requirements, for vendors.
However, some businesses don’t own the assets being exchanged on their platform. This means they differ from the type of companies operating when the current food regulatory system was designed.
The direct-to-consumer model skips a step by selling food products directly to the public online, rather than via a retailer or physical store.
Redistribution platforms add a step, by sharing foods after they have already been on sale in a store. This can add complexity to traceability and accountability, according to the report.
The report found barriers to entering the food market have been lowered. A restaurant can be set up on an on-demand delivery platform in less than a week. They can hire space from a dark or ghost kitchen on an hourly basis, and use the staff and equipment.
This means, for consumers, it can be difficult to see how the food has reached them. For example, a virtual brand might not have a visible presence so it’s not clear where the food was prepared.
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