The weakest link

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Supply chain

Despite growing sophistication in the supply chain, recent food scares indicate continued weaknesses.

Cast your mind back over the past 10 years and see how many major food safety incidents you can reel off. It's a long list from Sudan 1 and E.coli O104 H4 to UK counterfeit vodka, which hit headlines last month with the exposure of fake Smirnoff production in Lancashire.

Had UK traceability measures not been as good as they are, these scandals could have been far worse. However, each shows supply chains are only ever as strong as their weakest link and some of those links are pretty frail.

Fresh challenges also constantly appear on the horizon. "Viruses are potentially going to be the next issue,"​ says Liz Paterson, sales and marketing director at laboratory testing firm Eurofins UK. "A lot of people can't test for them. Everyone can test for microbiological cultures."​ Eurofins and others are adapting DNA tests to detect viruses.

And as today's harsh economic climate persists, food fraud and grey market sourcing will be more of an issue, placing greater strain on poorly resourced trading standards and environmental health officers, says Paterson. Eurofins has been involved in immuno-assay tests for grey market Basmati rice, Aberdeen Angus beef and pine nuts, for example.

In addition, the recent E.coli outbreak has highlighted problems with fresh produce sourcing. "As soon as you get into any kind of bulk distribution you have lost traceability," ​says Paterson. Testing sample sizes should be scaled up for such orders, she says.

Still, as supply chain threats evolve, so do systems and tests aimed at enhancing traceability and contaminant detection.

For example, food assurance specialist NFS-CMi has developed an allergen due diligence assessment for manufacturers and packers of food supplied to retail and foodservice, designed to ensure allergen control is fit for purpose.

New and rapid microbiological tests for ingredients emerge constantly. Researchers at Kansas State University are using carbon nano-fibres to flag up the presence of bugs such as E.coli and salmonella, for instance.

Meanwhile, work is under way in many parts of the world, such as China, on satellite global positioning system technology. These systems use microchip tags to track individual loads as they move from trucks to ships to rail.

Yet problems persist. Experts acknowledge these lie less with the theory than with the practice. Most know the elements of robust food safety procedures outlined by hazard analysis critical control point guidance, British Retail Consortium and other retail standards. However, obstacles to effective implementation include the nature of the law, company culture and commercial pressures.

In terms of the commercial climate, maintaining food safety has rarely been more challenging, says Gary Pepler, director of Food Integrity Consulting. "Current economic problems mean auditing's more important than ever,"​ Pepler told delegates at a recent conference. "As businesses make cuts in overheads, this can increase the risk of costly mistakes. For example, maintenance and hygiene programmes are often cut back because of costs to a business. This can have a severe negative impact on food safety and quality, which means it's important that food producers are confident in suppliers' standards."

Manufacturers struggle with lack of trained food science and technical staff to detect and trace contamination. As a result, the Society of Food Hygiene and Technology (SOFHT) is launching a campaign next year to interact with and attract sixth-form, college and university students into food safety roles. That's in addition to moves by Improve and the Institute of Food Science & Technology to design an industry-approved qualification framework for technical and scientific roles. "There has to be a move to attract these people or there will be a huge gap,"​ SOFHT director Neil Griffiths.

It's crucial to invest in a preventative culture that constantly challenges its own systems and processes, rather than one that ticks boxes, says Cert ID Europe chief executive Richard Werran. Payback is not easily quantified, but insistence on concrete returns is not an argument those taking out insurance would accept.

Open communication

That said, endemic tick-box cultures can be tough to kick. Businesses may be unwilling to share data for fear customers may use it to play them off against competitors or partners may use it to justify a greater share of profits.

"At the end of the day it comes down to the will to co-operate with other supply chain partners,"​ says Werran. "Companies don't want to ask questions or engage with partners. They have got to become more proactive."

Jeremy Housego, business development director at Cert ID, says regular face-to-face contact is vital or firms will miss changes between audits, such as shifts in responsibilities as technical staff depart or companies switch sources of supply.

"You talk to some people and they don't know who the supplier is or where packing is happening,"​ says Housego. Suppliers at the conference singled out such changes as a big source of potential problems. In addition, with firms slow to switch to more accurate computer-based traceability, mistakes and omissions are still made on paperwork.

Legislation can help ensure high standards of traceability, but SOFHT argues that the current General Food Law Regulation 178/2002 encourages a blinkered view of responsibilities. That's because it requires only that each part of the chain be accountable for the player immediately above and below it.

"There were those who were surprised at the rather basic level of traceability required,"​ says Griffiths.

There's recognition that smaller companies do not have the same resources as larger ones in this process. But SOFHT says this should be recognised in broader law changes that boost responsibilities. "From our viewpoint maybe the bar needs to be set a bit higher, even if you put a derogation in for smaller businesses."

Law enforcement

However, the law has to be policed and there's a lack of adequately trained trading standards and environmental health officers. All agree the area must get more support despite tight budgets or the supply chain will vulnerable. "Trading standards and environmental health departments are in total disarray because of government cutbacks,"​ says Paterson.

Areas such as pesticide residue testing are prioritised and therefore receive adequate cover, but Paterson raises question marks over others. "Would our government have the resources to handle an E.coli issue in the middle of this restructuring?

"There are 12 local authority laboratories in the UK. One in Durham has closed and four others are out to tender and under threat."​ Chemical contaminant testing is worst affected, she says.

However, port health authorities are separate from local government and are being strengthened, which is positive, she adds.

The law and its implementation can provide vital motivation to improve standards, but changes on this level can be slow to take effect. Often big business can take the lead. For example, Costco Wholesale has just introduced requirements to test for a much broader range of E.coli strains in its fresh produce and ground beef.

US meat processor Beef Products is trialling tests for six different E.coli strains on its hamburger meat at one of five grinding plants and tests developed by US Department of Agriculture scientists for the 'big six' E.coli strains are now being commercialised by test-kit companies. FM

Cultivate a clean pallet

Pallet contamination could be going unreported in the UK food industry and parallels with other industries suggest the area deserves greater scrutiny, according to Jim Hardisty, md of

"Although there are no UK businesses publicly owning up to food contamination issues in the UK pallet sector, it's likely incidents are occurring behind closed doors, based on the incidents made public in the US,"​ says Hardisty.

Last year, in one US test of wooden and plastic pallets stored behind grocery stores, 10% tested positive for E.coli and 2.9% for listeria.

In addition, Hardisty says cases of pallet contamination in the pharmaceutical sector are increasing in Europe, including the UK. In May, Johnson & Johnson recalled at least 11,700 bottles of HIV/AIDS drug Prezista after consumer reports of a musty odour in the UK and other countries.

"According to scientific tests, the cause of contamination was a chemical called 2,4,6 tribromoanisole or TBA,"​ says Hardisty. This is "caused by the breakdown of another chemical, tribromophenol (TBP) and is used in some countries by wooden pallet manufacturers as a wood preservative and flame retardant".

Insufficiently dried wooden pallets exposed to high levels of humidity are particularly susceptible to such contamination. And splinters and nails on wooden pallets threaten either to puncture packaging or contaminate food with rust (in the case of nails), he says.

In addition, pest infestation has led to an increase in UK-sourced timber, from a third a couple of years ago to 80% today, according to Hardisty. "Timber pallets must now be heat-treated and accredited in accordance with international regulation ISPM 15 to regulate the control and spread of forest pests, such as Asian long horn beetle and pine wood nematode."

However, treatment against contamination can, in turn, create more problems, says Hardisty. Heat-treated pallets can be susceptible to mould growth and the toxin methyl bromide, which is also used to fumigate pallets to prevent infestation, could pose serious risks if it tainted food.

By contrast, plastic pallets are a more hygienic option, according to Hardisty. Not only do they not have nails, splinters or sharp edges, they have smooth, sealed surfaces that are resistant to mould or dust and do not absorb moisture.

For this reason, orders for Goplasticpallets' range of IPS Hygienic plastic pallets, which are designed for clean room environments, have been placed by major manufacturers. These include Nestlé UK, which has ordered 2,350 for its factories in Dalston, Cumbria, and Fawdon, Newcastle. Cadbury has also ordered 300 for its factory in Kenya.

Key Contacts

Cert ID: 01675 475607

Eurofins: 0845 604 6740

Food Integrity Consulting: 07770 834 857

Goplasticpallets: 01323 744057

NSF: CMi01993 885684

SOFHT: 01827 872500

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