Oranges from South Africa. Beef from Brazil. Chocolate from Germany. Tilapia from China. Chances are you have eaten one or more of these products and many other foods from foreign lands. Food has become a huge global business thanks, in part, to consumers’ desires for fresh fruits, vegetables, and other seasonal foods year-round and expanding culinary palates.
Globalization has also brought increasing complexity to the food chain and some big concerns, namely food safety. Further processed foods may contain ingredients from a dozen countries or more, making it difficult to know exactly how the original ingredients were grown, processed, and stored. If adulterants, contaminants or pathogens do show up, finding the culprit or culprits can be extremely difficult.
But help is on the way with new technologies that can quickly detect contaminants and prevent or minimize foodborne disease outbreaks, according to the latest interview series on Food Safety from FutureFood 2050—a multi-year program from IFT highlighting new ways of thinking and tools to sustainably feeding 9 billion-plus people by 2050.
“Regulatory agencies and food companies have much better resolution and ability today to track specific strains of organisms than they did a decade ago,” says Robert Brackett, director of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health, in an article “Fast tracking foodborne illness” by Jennifer Weeks. Advances in genetic mapping and DNA sequencing will continue to make it easier, he says, to determine quickly whether people in different locations have been sickened by food from a single source.
Brackett is optimistic about the impact of the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011, in helping to propel new technological advancements.
“The Food Safety Modernization Act stresses prevention, so companies are motivated to try to find pathogens and eliminate places that harbor them,” Brackett says. “They can take samples of a food or a surface [in a factory], evaluate the genetic makeup of everything they find there, and look for patterns instead of a particular pathogen. The focus is on understanding the microbial ecology that exists in their plants.”
Regulators and food manufacturers may also find it easier to comply with the new FSMA rules as rapid advances in genomics (the study of genes and their functions) give them better tools for identifying pathogens like E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, says Brackett.
“Food fraud is now recognized as being one of the big threats to the integrity of the global food supply,” says Chris Elliott, an analytical chemist and director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, in an article “Arresting food fraud” by David Derbyshire.
Whether it’s adding illegal chemicals to prepared meals, changing the use-by dates on packaging or passing off peanut oil as olive oil, food fraud is big business. It is so lucrative, in fact, that drug cartels in South America and organized crime in Italy are involved in counterfeit groceries.
Elliott declines to give a figure for the value of fraud—the data simply aren’t there, he says—but the World Customs Institute estimates the cost to the global food industry at $49 billion annually.
Elliott shot into the limelight as the head of the UK inquiry into the 2013 horse meat scandal—the discovery that horse was present in frozen burgers sold in some of Europe’s leading supermarkets. Today Elliott works closely with the industry as director of his university’s ASSET Technology Centre in Belfast, developing new analytical tools and refining old ones that will help regulatory food safety inspectors, retailers and food manufacturers lead the battle against food frauds for decades to come.
Food is a source of great joy in China. But there is also a bit of cynicism as consumers approach their rice bowls and steamed buns after year upon year of various food scandals, such as melamine in powdered milk and infant formula, fake and adulterated meat, and the illegal recycling of “gutter” oil.
For China the task ahead is daunting and could still take some time, according to Liu Xiumei, a scientific advisor at the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, in an article “Cleaning up China’s food safety system” by Michael Standaert.
To address food safety, China needs to look at the whole society, says Liu. That means not only building up a national system to guarantee food safety, developing a risk management capability, and further increasing the level of expertise and a system for tracing foodborne illness to the source, but also educating consumers and changing perceptions created in the media about the relative safety and dangers of different food sources.
“We need to put public health first and then the health of the food industry. Right now it is the opposite,” she says. “They try to find the factory [that produced a contaminated product] and take care of the problem, but that is only stopping one factory or one type of food product.”
To read these and other stories in the Food Safety series, please visit www.futurefood2050.com.