Nearly a year and a half after the inception of the Global Food Safety Initiative, the movers and shakers of the food industry are still hammering out the fine print on a system that many hope will act as a global early warning call for food scares, and make our meals safer. Warren Giles found out more.

The safety of food has become an obsession in the retail and manufacturing industries in recent years as companies have watched products and brand reputations ruined by a succession of health scares.

But a forum of food businesses is trying to hammer out solutions of their own to the threats posed, by formulating a “Global Food Safety Initiative.” The plan, launched in May last year and co-ordinated by CIES (Food Business Forum), is to build an international system capable of acting as a global early warning system, promoting interaction with governments and educating consumers.

A first draft was completed at the end of August and a conference held in Geneva last week discussed progress to date.

“Food safety is competitive”

Tesco plc technical director, John Longworth, chairing the conference, warned delegates that, like it or not, “food safety is competitive.” It “grows our market sales and market share because customers trust our brand and they won’t trust our brand if we don’t get it right.”

Clearly, retailers and brand owners have to learn lessons from food crises because the consequences of failing to respond correctly in a crisis are dramatic. Of thirty companies suffering from losses to their brands related to food safety, Longworth tells us that half never recovered: “The losses that can be incurred from product safety failures can be huge and none of us can underestimate that.”

However, while retailers and brand owners have a responsibility to their brands, everyone wants to present their own brand as a quality assurance in its own right. “We don’t want to confuse the customer with another assurance which is less relevant and real,” explained Longworth.

Who packed your parachute?

Patrick Wall, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, noted however that regulators could do nothing to cushion brand names from health problems.

“Don’t expect regulators to protect your brand,” warned Wall. Regulators are not the ones making food safer, that is entirely up to retailers and suppliers. The question to ask yourself, said Wall, is “would you jump out of an aeroplane with a parachute packed by your supplier?”

But that is not the end of the story. Retailers and producers also have to be aware of how their products are treated throughout the food chain he said, advocating appropriate training for employees handling products. “Your staff could be your greatest liability.”

And despite the best traceability and safety systems, products can be mishandled after they leave you, “and your brand can take a hit,” warned Wall. Consumer confidence is fragile, and, he concluded, “food safety is a journey, not a destination.”

Educate consumers

Professor Lawrence Busch, from Michigan State University said that more research into what consumers actually do with food is needed to properly assess risk.

He agreed that retail risk goes beyond the point of sale and commented that this should stimulate more work into consumer education, including telling shoppers that they also have food safety responsibilities. ”

“You can’t say [your responsibility] stops at the supermarket door. It will come back to haunt you if you do”
Professor Lawrence Busch, from Michigan State University

You can’t say [your responsibility] stops at the supermarket door. It will come back to haunt you if you do,” he said.

However, Busch argued that the bulk of food safety problems begin at the farm level, although most of the value added to a product comes after it leaves. Therefore, it should be cost effective to invest in improvements on the farm before raw materials reach processing plants.

Damage to brands is also increasingly a worry in Asia, said Adrian Polhill, global food product manager for SGS, the world’s largest verification, testing and certification company.

After a series of food poisoning outbreaks there is a growing distrust in government and authority’s ability to cope, he said. Nevertheless, consumers want fresher products with longer shelf lives and are becoming more sensitive to product origins, animal welfare issues as well as ethical and environmental concerns.

Local means fresher

One way of improving consumer confidence, even if it not directly related to safety, was outlined by Vincent Carton, MD of Carton Bros., Ireland’s largest chicken processor. Carton said that his products created a sense of confidence in consumers by printing the farm and farmer’s names on packaging. The system needed a computer program and some reorganisation, but he insisted that it was not expensive.

“It’s got nothing to do with food safety,” admitted Carton, but in the consumer’s mind it makes the product seem fresher and avoids awkward nationalistic labelling. “It’s far more subtle and far more direct.”

Pathogens increasing

The World Health Organisation’s food safety programme coordinator, Joergen Schlundt, warned that while the CIES programme was focusing on the major spectacular outbreaks of food safety failures that attract public attention, the real health problems are the sporadic, hidden cases that cause deaths and are poorly understood.

In the industrialised world, up to 30% of the population suffers from foodborne microbial diseases, which kill up to 20 million people annually, he said. “Food is not safe, despite what politicians may want to claim.”

There have been simultaneous increases worldwide over the past 15 years in food borne diseases such as salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis. This cannot be explained away by improved monitoring as it has been uniform, and other pathogens have not increased over the period, Schlundt said.

“Senseless” testing

David Byrne
European Commissioner forhealth and consumer protection
The WHO official was also dismissive of much of the testing carried out by retailers. Huge amounts of money are spent on “senseless testing” he said, and much better understanding of outbreaks and contamination is needed. “I am quite sure that surveillance will be the next big thing.”

“The thinking has to change within the whole food chain,” said Schlundt. Current food safety systems are only reactive, based on hazard identification (HACCP) and testing. It is impossible to “test our way out” of these issues, he said. Preventative measures from the farm to fork, including consumer education and risk classifications at each stage of the chain are crucial to building a realistic assessment of problem areas and tackling them.

The European Commissioner for health and consumer protection, David Byrne concluded the conference by saying that he hoped the European Food Safety Agency would begin its work early in the new year. Although it still has no home, Byrne said that it will work with the CIES food safety proposals and “reduce the risk of different scientific opinions within the EU.”

By Warren Giles, correspondent in Geneva

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