Special Report: Food Safety in the Spotlight

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16 May 2017 --- Potential changes to US Food and Drug Administration policies which could impact on food safety issues and the consequences that Brexit may have on policy as Britain withdraws from the European Union - these are just two of the issues in the food safety space right now. On both sides of the pond, and elsewhere, the issue of food safety is a hot topic as consumers and industry decipher the mountains of information, bureaucracy and legislation there is on the subject.

FoodIngredientsFirst breaks down some of the issues. 

There is very little that gets taken as seriously as food safety within the food and beverage industry as a whole. Getting this wrong, even slightly, can seriously impact a company’s bottom line, ruin its reputation and much more importantly injure or harm the public at large. 

2016 was a nightmare year for Chipotle, while earlier in 2017 Brazil looked like it was going to suffer severely in the wake of its meat scandal. However, apart from a few initial temporary import restrictions, there hasn’t seemed to be that much fall out from this thus far. 

Every year the list of food safety challenges increases. 

Traversing Trump Uncertainty
The most sweeping reform of US food safety laws in more than 70 years - the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) - was signed into law by President Obama back in January 2011. It aims to ensure the US food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. 

However, there is a potential threat that the Trump administration will reduce the budget of the US Food and Drug Administration which could impact on the Act or even revise it altogether. The budget cutting potential poses questions for American food and drink sectors concerned whether or not there will be more changes or regulations to come. 

Scott Gottlieb assumed command of the FDA in early May and the Commissioner will be closely followed. 

Brexit
The political landscape is just as uncertain, if not more so, in Europe as the potential impacts Brexit dominates the future-proofing of the UK’s food and drink industry as well as its agri-good sector. 

Future trade deals and the potential trading with partners with a more lax approach to food safety perhaps? What about the impact of tariffs, customs, border controls, phytosanitary inspections, labeling and the type of documentation/certification required? How will Britain respond to no longer being under EU regulation, scientific evaluations and research? And what will the “new” UK laws about food safety look like? What are the opportunities and risks?

There are so many more food-related issues right now - but, in truth, there are very few concrete answers at the moment. 

European Food Safety Authority
Consider this. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) scientists recently devised a way to more accurately estimate consumer exposure to enzymes used in food production. 

Although historically enzymes are considered to be non-toxic and not a safety concern for consumers since they are produced naturally by living organisms and present in ingredients used to make food, today’s foods are also made using food enzymes produced industrially. These enzymes are extracted from plant and animal tissues or produced by fermentation of microorganisms.

Dr Christina Tlustos, an exposure expert who sits on EFSA’s Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes, Flavorings and Processing Aids (CEF), which developed the approach, said: “We have developed an exposure tool which can be tailored to each food process involving food enzymes. The tool uses technical conversion factors, which means we can combine food consumption data with enzyme use levels and take into account the level of transfer of food enzymes into food products.”

The same methodology will be applied to all remaining food enzymes applications scheduled for assessment by EFSA. What happens then after Brexit? 

With so much more speculation than resolution, the “if’s” and “but’s” of what Brexit will mean mount ahead of next month’s UK General Election - and they won’t stop there. It’s a little under two years before aspects are really set in stone. Nevertheless wide-scale discussions concerning the deregulation and reregulation of the UK food market and the impact this has on food safety will continue apace. 

Food Safety Technologies
Wageningen University & Research is researching a new way to test food for harmful substances on the spot using a smartphone and app which is being touted as a potential game-changer. This novel approach towards food safety monitoring bypasses the need for food inspectors to take food samples, send them to laboratories for testing and wait several days for the results, which show nothing is wrong in most cases. 

Currently, samples are still taken throughout the food production chain, registered and tested for residues of pesticides, antibiotics, natural toxins, allergens and other contaminants. The vision is that tests will be carried out on site by food inspectors using their smartphone, saving time and money. It also means laboratories can put advanced equipment to use on more relevant suspected cases and obtain evidence of any food safety violation. 

Wageningen believes that it’s not just professionals who could benefit from the app and smartphone technology, it’s entirely possible for it to be rolled out to consumers so they can test their own samples.

In April, processing engineers Bühler said that industry and consumer pressure for a “zero tolerance” approach to contamination is driving unprecedented demand for its SORTEX E optical sorters, with sales doubling, following the introduction of SORTEX BioVision technology in 2015. Bühler’s innovation has revolutionized nut processing capabilities for existing customers and is now attracting new ones, meaning orders for SORTEX sorters are expected to continue their upward trajectory, as world nut production continues to increase and processors strive to eliminate all forms of contamination from nuts. 

Israel-based company Yarok Technology Transfer, which develops rapid and accurate tests for the food industry, recently received the United Nations International Award 2017 for “Innovative Ideas and Technology on Agribusiness” for its fast testing system that detects the presence of dangerous bacteria in food in just 45 minutes.

Yarok was one of five winners selected from over 330 entries from 80 countries involved in the competition aimed to identify the world’s most innovative technologies and ideas in agribusiness to improve the socio-economic, food safety and security conditions in Less Developed Countries (LDCs).

Outlook
It is a period of potential change for global food safety as changing consumer demands, advances in traceability, rising technologies and innovations as well as the evolving regulatory environment make safety across the food supply chain increasingly complicated. 

High profile food safety and fraud scandals have always damaged companies and governments, but in today’s Internet-driven world and social media, the consumer is more powerful than ever. This is likely to increase as the digital age progresses further still. 

At the same time countries - in particular the US and China - are adopting stricter and more complicated regulations for standards which creates an unprecedented compliance risk. While the UK will go it alone of all fronts, including yet-to-be-determined policies and regulations on food. 

by Gaynor Selby 

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