There is a broader consideration these days of what safe and authentic food actually means, according to the chief executive of Food Standards Scotland.

Geoff Ogle told attendees at the Government Chemist Conference this week that in recent years consumers have expanded expectations and understanding of the food system to include sustainability and ethical factors.

Ogle’s presentation mentioned Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia invading Ukraine, food prices and inflation, and food security.

Scottish consumer tracker data has shown prices are a major concern but standards are not as people trust that the work of regulators protects them. However, potential trade deals are driving some concern about standards in Scotland.

Current challenges
Public health and the food landscape is changing, according to Ogle. An aging population means there are more vulnerable people at risk of foodborne infection and new production methods such as vertical farming and novel protein sources need to be taken into account.

Food Standards Scotland produced a strategy in 2021 but went through a reprioritization exercise in 2022 due to real-term budget cuts and a lack of staff.

Ogle said the agency is often hit with several issues at the same time and pointed to resources as being one of the greatest risks. The use of data is improving and showing promise but is still at an early stage. He added there had been increased demands on environmental health officers in the past 20 years despite a reduction in resources and stressed that food is only one of their many responsibilities.

The Government Chemist resolves scientific disputes in the food and feed sectors, gives advice to regulators and industry, and carries out research.

Keynote lectures over the two days were given by Henry Dimbleby, lead author of the National Food Strategy, and Guy Poppy, deputy executive chair of BBSRC and ex-chief scientific advisor at the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The FSA’s National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) and Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU) hosted an interactive session where attendees discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the system for reporting incidents and sharing information, putting forward suggestions on how to make improvements.

Potential future concerns highlighted
Louise Manning, a professor at the University of Lincoln, said UK consumers take it as a given that food is of high quality and safe.

Manning, who produces a weekly look at Rapid Alert System for Food System and Feed (RASFF) alerts, said recent problems have included tea as well as sildenafil in food supplements. Sildenafil is used to treat erection problems but can be dangerous if the user is on certain other medicines.

Manning spoke about climate-related risks such as predicted temperature change and related droughts, landslides, and floods; forest fires as a potential source of airborne dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons; plus adverse and more humid weather conditions.

She questioned how issues will be risk assessed as many are not well understood as yet and some are long-term and chronic, such as aflatoxins, instead of short-term and acute. One example is how risk assessments are set up for oats in muesli but not in oat milk, despite changing consumer diets.

Manning said the role of labs was critical in detecting and preventing emerging issues and it was essential to have validated methods and competencies to undertake testing programs. 

Vittorio Fattori, a food safety officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), shared an overview of global trends and their food safety implications including climate change, consumer behavior and dietary patterns, new food sources and production systems, technology advances, and how foresight can help with early identification and evaluation of emerging issues.

Fattori said the agency is working on a report on the implications to food safety from the circular economy and will be holding a meeting in November 2023 on new foods including plant-based, precision fermentation, and 3D/4D printed foods.

Attendees also heard about food regulation in the UK, the authenticity of alternative proteins, sustainability in laboratories, cell-based, or cultured, meat, traceability of genome-edited products, and vertical farming.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)