There is potential for consumers to have a stronger voice and play more of a role in food safety, according to speakers on a recent webinar.

The session, held as part of the Health Talks series, featured Vincent Doumeizel, of Lloyd’s Register Foundation, Chris Hegadorn from the Committee on World Food Security and Charlie Worthington, of Consumers International.

Simone Raszl, a World Health Organization scientist, said: “We are all consumers and we want the option to choose but we need to be informed and aware of the risks and know how to use this choice. There are so many issues now and there is a lot of information but consumers need to know what is real or fake and how to use that for their benefit.”

Food safety level per country
Doumeizel spoke about the World Risk Poll of 150,000 people in 142 countries.

“Sixty percent of people are concerned about the food they eat. We know food has never been safer than it is today but still we say good luck instead of bon appetit when we have lunch. 17 percent have experienced or know people who had serious problems due to foodborne disease,” he said.

“The biggest problem lies with perception of the risk and the lack of information we have. Food safety only appeals when we have a problem, no-one cares as long as it goes well. People know the food supply chain is obscure. Food safety can only happen once the chain is fully traceable and transparent, which is not the case right now and this lack of transparency does not reassure the consumer.

“It is important for regulators to be in a position to assess the food safety level of a country. There are standards for companies but we don’t have standards at country level so we are looking to implement a food safety index to define per country the level of food safety awareness and regulation. We think we should improve training, education and skills in emerging countries to improve food safety.”

Chris Hegadorn, Committee on World Food Security (CFS) secretary, said consumers play a vital role in demanding safe food from producers and retailers.

“We see the role of consumer associations as key actors to represent consumer voices. Civil society is there to pressure governments and organization to take food safety reform seriously. We know how important this issue is to public health. I call on everyone to work with us and WHO to make sure food safety gets the attention and focus required to address the major issues,” he said.

“Trust is at the heart of what we need to be supporting. Scandals show the complexity of the economic and political pressures that producers are under. We should be reminded every day how important food safety is and how important it is to protect consumer interests.”

Consumer has role but others also responsible
Charlie Worthington, of Consumers International, said food safety risk is not distributed evenly, with vulnerable communities in different parts of the world.

“Those most at risk often have the least voice and power over government and business. Consumer awareness and education is a huge part of the responsibility for consumer organizations through media or directly with consumers in schools and workplaces to educate and inform on best practices on food safety and emerging risks and challenges,” he said.

“The work doesn’t stop with implementation of policies, consumer organizations have a role through monitoring and enforcement, holding companies to account and making sure governments are implementing the standards they committed to. The more consumer voices, the stronger place we will be in.”

Messages that need to be shared with people vary by country, said Worthington.

“The WHO’s 5 keys to safer food are an important starting point in helping consumers maximize their own safety through food choices and preparation. It is helpful to think of consumer awareness as not just putting the responsibility for food safety on consumers. It goes beyond what can be achieved by information alone as a lot of the challenges faced by consumers in terms of food safety come much earlier in the value chain and it can be difficult for individuals to feel they can affect this but by working together it becomes an avenue to run campaigns on food safety and hygiene.

“Another area we’ve been looking at lately is trust and digital food marketplaces as more consumers, especially during the pandemic, were buying food online and it becomes an even greater barrier to enforcement and building trust.”

Delivery of safe food
Another session looked at delivery services and takeaway businesses and how for one dish, three food safety locations – the kitchen of production, delivery driver and consumer’s home – have to be considered.

Speakers included Adam Kramer, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Julie Pierce, of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Pierce said the sector is growing and is not yet stable.

“It is a complex ecosystem of large and small businesses competing and working together. It is volatile as players find it easy to enter the market and can exit just as easily. There is nothing in these businesses that makes them more risky than the traditional equivalent. Sometimes the risk is people think they are invisible to the regulator so behave badly, sometimes they don’t realize they are a food business or sometimes we can’t see them easily, so assume the worst,” she said.

“We mustn’t lose sight of the benefits, this is a great opportunity for consumers, giving them improved access and choice, businesses have lower costs of entry and opportunities for innovation. We, as regulators, can use the positive effect of the platforms to get them to only list businesses with a high food hygiene rating. We can get them to use their data to best manage their supply chain, recalls and outbreaks and communicate with their customers.”

Pierce gave some examples of pilots and other FSA work in the area.

“We are looking for where businesses are misrepresenting their hygiene rating, they are saying they have a better score than they really do, we’re monitoring what is being advertised for sale and by whom and we are working on a voluntary charter with the aggregators so they will delist poor performing businesses,” she said.

“Our main challenge is visibility of the businesses but we can seek out their digital footprint. We need to understand how consumers make their buying decisions in this digital world. A restaurant has a sticker on the door and you can see what the rating is but what is the equivalent on a website?”

Managing hazards in changing systems
Kramer said one of the main concerns is potential temperature abuse because the food is not refrigerated or held hot during delivery.

“One of the key questions is, is the food received in person and then eaten or put away immediately or is it left at the door waiting for someone to bring it in? At restaurants the food is eaten right away, that minimizes the risk. With groceries we need to be aware when was the order packed, when did it leave temperature control and how was it packed, was the milk next to the cereal?,” he said.

“Contamination is likely a big concern. For grocery orders or meal kits, how is the food packaged. Is there potential for cross contamination, do they have raw meats with ready-to-eat items, how is food transported and did the driver sample the food before delivering it?”

New business models have also been created, said Kramer.

“We are seeing shared kitchens where multiple restaurants work out of one kitchen. This raises the question for inspectors, if there is a problem who is responsible? We are seeing some aggregators building a shared kitchen to service the delivery market and restaurants creating virtual brands, this creates an issue with understanding if there are unlicensed food establishments operating and if someone gets sick how do you identify the actual restaurant,” he said. 

“Ghost kitchens are set up to prepare food for delivery, a customer may think they are getting food from a nearby restaurant but in reality the restaurant is serving the dine-in customers and the ghost kitchen does the delivery orders. Does the responsibility for the food end with the restaurant when they pass it to the delivery driver?

“The added risk from foodborne illness can be minimized through efforts of industry and consumers who are getting the food. The main challenge is the rapid pace of change, regulations are slow to follow what the trends are. You need to think creatively, apply the existing regulations and help to enable these businesses while still maintaining food safety so no-one gets sick.”

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