Food chain vulnerable to malicious activity, expert

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food chain Food safety Milk Food

Food chain vulnerable to malicious activity, expert
Despite initiatives such as the Rapid Alert System for Food & Feed (RASFF), the EU food chain is still vulnerable to malicious activity for the sake of profit or terrorist type activity, according to a leading food safety expert.

Speaking at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Binstead Lecture in London, shortly before the current E.coli crisis broke, Tony Hines MBE from Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) said that the RASFF yielded a useful database regarding EU food safety issues.

The RASFF provides environmental health officers, regulatory managers and enforcement authorities with a weekly digest that enabled them to identify transgressors within or without the union, and to ‘horizon scan’ where and when problems are likely to occur, as well as assess comparative data on EU border inspections.

Spanish oil scandal

Hines welcomed such systems, but said the little-known toxic Spanish cooking oil scandal from 1981, when 1,000 people lost their lives and thousands were seriously injured, was a “very good example of just how big an issue we can create with food, and shows just how vulnerable the food chain is”.

The Sudan 1 crisis – in which the carcinogenic food dye was used illegally to colour chillies and paprika and boost their value – began in 2003, gaining momentum in 2005.

However, Hines said most people in the food industry “had their heads buried in the sand and hoped the issue would go away”​, although he said that when he wrote the first product recall notice out in 2003 that he knew Sudan I contamination would be a massive problem.

The most recent dioxin scandal concerned tainted industrial fatty oils in German feed, and Hines said he watched news broadcasts where the German authorities insisted that the incident was under control and that they knew where the dioxins went in the food chain.

Hines was sceptical:“I remember sitting at home thinking, ‘this is gonna be another big one.’”​ Meanwhile, here in UK we confused consumers, Hines added. “The FSA said ‘it’s not an issue’, but certain retailers took products off shelves. So who do consumers believe?

Widespread fear of food fraud prompted such actions, said Hines, with the Chinese melamine-tainted infant formula scandal still a recent memory. Regarding this he said: “Did the authorities knowabout it before or after the Olympics, and why didn’t we predict it was going to happen?”

Food safety hydra?

Hines added: “Sadly our educated food technologist knew that by using melamine as a contaminant they could increase protein levels. So when the milk went to the dairy we couldn’t detect it had been watered down. 10 gallons of water and a bucket of melamine means the same apparent protein content.”

He said the most worrying thing was the potential for melamine poisoning to recur in China. “Did they solve the problem, or were there some astute businessmen out there who were removing fresh milk products from sale, putting them in deep freezes the size of a football pitch with a view to reintroducing them back onto the market a couple of years later? The answer quite simply is ‘yes’.

“Back during the Sudan 1 crisis I said, 'if you’ve got contaminated chilli powder, hire a digger and bury it'. Because if you simply return the product to source, it will go back through the food supply chain, sit on shelf, then come back to you a year later.”

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