Smarter ways of managing safety are needed if food manufacturers are to cope with the changing world in which they operate. Global sourcing is an issue. Particularly considering the comparatively low-risk financial incentives for fraudulent activity involving the intentional contamination of ingredients to boost prices such the Sudan 1 and the Chinese melamine in milk scandals. All this means manufacturers have to be even more on their guard. Combine these risks with the emergence of new pathogens, plus uncertainties over the use of novel processes and ingredients, and you have a potentially toxic mix.
That is certainly the view of experts in the field, such as consultant Dr Jo Head who chaired a recent food safety conference organised by Leatherhead Food Research (LFR).
"At the moment we are stuck doing what we used to do," says Head. "Food safety hasn't fundamentally changed for the last 20 years."
Head is convinced that smarter approaches are needed to deal with the food safety issues we are likely to face in future. She believes industry needs to tap into the latest market intelligence and combine that with the latest quantitative risk assessment tools and communication tools to manage food safety along the supply chain. "We are not in a safe space and quantitative risk assessment tools are going to be a key way of achieving that," she adds.
Supply chain traceability
It's all about anticipating problems before they become a crisis, with all the concomitant dangers to consumers' health and damage to companies both reputationally and financially. The trouble is, warns Head, it is unlikely to be achieved with the paper-based food safety systems that are prevalent throughout the manufacturing sector. Supply chain traceability and speed of action are the watchwords something which only the latest modern systems can properly provide, claims Head.
Marc McDonnell, vice president of business development with online collaborative systems supplier Trace One concurs on the need to move away from paper-based traceability systems. But he's less pessimistic about the current levels of safety within the food supply chain at least from the retail perspective, with whom his company has most dealings. However, he recognises there is room for improvement, particularly in getting access to information about upstream ingredients supplies.
Trace One has systems installed with 31 retailers around the globe, including 12 of the top 25. "That gives a community of over 25,000 manufacturers and suppliers within that," says McDonnell. In the UK it works with Asda, Marks & Spencer and Musgrave Budgens-Londis.
"The key thing we do is to try to eliminate risk," says McDonnell. "We provide the specification systems that enable retailers to access [information from their own-label suppliers]."
McDonnell adds: "The key issue is to go further up the supply chain. Because you need to get information from source and that is where we are developing systems so that it covers the whole supply chain. You are only as strong as your weakest link."
For its part, LFR has joined forces with food safety systems specialist Qadex to launch a new service called Xpert-Ease next month. Xpert-ease combines the smart IT tools available through the Qadex Vision system for food safety and supply chain quality management with LFR's extensive food safety expertise and market intelligence. By subscribing to this service, it is argued that companies could avoid many of the potential food safety supply chain pitfalls they are likely to encounter.
Staying ahead of the game is also something the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is trying to do in its role as industry policeman. The FSA has been forced by budget constraints to take a far more risk-based approach to its work, focusing on those areas that pose the biggest threats to consumer health.
According to the FSA's chief scientist, Dr Andrew Wadge, the future will involve closer collaboration between players in the sector. It will involve more sharing of intelligence with other agencies across the world, as well as with the food industry itself.
It will mean improving the European Commission's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF); and closer collaboration with organisations such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the World Health Organisation, to share information more effectively than in the past.
Wadge is convinced of the need to anticipate where potential dangers exist and identify areas where there are opportunities for criminals to make a fast buck.
LFR's head of food security and crisis management, Tony Hines, calls it "temptation analysis". He advises food scientists to begin thinking like criminals if they hope to spot illegal activities in their supply chains that could lead to food safety incidents.
And with the speed and ease with which products and ingredients are distributed across the globe these days, contamination of food and feed both intentional and unintentional can have very serious consequences.
Last year's dioxin incident in animal feed in Germany, the E.coli O104 outbreaks in Germany and France (eventually traced to contaminated fenugreek seeds from Egypt) and the outbreak of botulism in Scotland, have illustrated this truth only too graphically.
In response to the German dioxin in feed incident, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), a trade association for the agri-supply sector, has just launched a collaborative sampling plan for the UK feed industry. It is designed to establish robust, representative data on background levels of dioxins in UK animal feed.
It remains to be seen, however, how the recent decision by ministers north of the border to establish their own food standards body in Scotland will affect the FSA's ability to deliver food safety for the remainder of the UK.
The new Scottish body will be responsible for food safety, food standards, nutrition, food labelling and meat inspection for Scotland.
The announcement in June followed recent acrimonious battles between the primary meat processing sector and the FSA about the regulator's plans for full cost recovery for meat inspection. These proposals have now been postponed by the FSA following government concerns that they would adversely affect smaller slaughterhouses. However, the issue of who picks up the bill for meat inspections is unlikely to disappear.
Horizon scanning is the latest buzz phrase. But it's not about predicting the unpredictable, says Wadge, it's all about having access to the latest intelligence and combining that with rigorous procedures to manage incidents when they inevitably occur.
In its most recent figures, the FSA reports that it investigated 1,714 food incidents last year, compared with 1,505 in 2010 (a rise of about 14%). While the majority (96%) of incidents were mainly 'low level', this is a further increase on the 1,208 incidents reported in 2009.
While there are likely to be many factors behind the increase, the FSA believes improved monitoring and reporting play a significant part.
Contamination incidents continue to rise, says the FSA. The three largest contributors in 2011 were environmental (21%), natural chemical contamination (17%), followed by microbiological contamination (16%). Allergen-related incidents were also up by more than 44% one of the biggest increases shown in the figures. Allergen-related incidents also contributed more than 50% of the Food Alert & Information Notices issued in 2011.
"The FSA report highlights the ongoing challenge for the food industry to supply food that is safe, authentic, and free from problems," says Simon Flanagan, senior food safety consultant at RSSL. "The report shows up just how much vulnerability there is and, perhaps, where food producers need most help in avoiding problems in future."
In a separate move, RSSL has just launched a service that will help trace the source of foreign bodies from the factory floors. Part of its purpose is to help firms fight customers' false claims about foreign bodies in food and drink.
Using the hand-held scanners, RSSL's scientists will be able to map all the different metals, and many of the plastics that are used throughout a factory. This information can then be correlated with the results of a foreign body identification to suggest likely sources of the contamination.
Despite the turmoil it is currently experiencing, the FSA stresses its intention of maintaining its focus on the high-risk meat supply chain not least given the high incidence of foodborne incidents associated with high levels of campylobacter in poultry meat.
Most recently, the FSA welcomed EFSA's scientific opinion on poultry meat inspection, which suggested that traditional inspection might not be enough to fully address the most relevant biological hazards to public health (ie, campylobacter, salmonella and ESBL/AmpC gene-carrying bacteria).
The FSA has argued for some time that the current system of official meat controls does not address the most relevant meatborne pathogens of today, which are microbiological and cannot be detected by the naked eye.
Following a review of meat inspection started in 2009, aimed at improving public health protection while delivering a more risk-based, effective and proportionate system for official controls on meat, the FSA still hopes such an approach will be adopted across Europe sooner rather than later. But that will involve persuading other EU Member States to accept the need for change.