Food safety is a communal issue and responsibility. Some might say, though, that the final link in the supply chain is the most volatile of all. Consumers often flounder, causing their own problems, at least in part, through ignorance. How can industry help? Bernice Hurst explores.

According to the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF), it is estimated that one in ten people in the UK may suffer from foodborne illnesses each year.

The American website Home Food Safety reports that “more than three out of five Americans say they wait for food to taste bad, look bad or smell bad…instead of checking the expiration date”. Foodlink, the UK industry/government website devoted to food safety, explains the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates, basic information which many people find bewildering.

Shoppers can act like loose cannons. They demand information and advice, transparency and clarity but then decide not to follow instructions or read labels. Many tons of food each year ends up in landfills, wasted because kept in individual homes either too long or under less than ideal conditions.

Just how common is common sense?
Much has been said and done of late to try and ensure food safety but efforts can fall, literally, at the last mile. Much of what consumers need to do is simple common sense but it cannot be assumed that what is obvious when spelled out is already part of a normal routine.

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Retailers have a valuable role to play in ensuring that food safe before it is sold continues to be safe afterwards. At their behest, consumers have become used to bulk shopping, often making just one trip a week and travelling a number of miles from shop to home.

Congestion can severely lengthen journey times and must, therefore, be factored into any calculations of how to keep food in best possible conditions while in transit. The last mile can be a killer in more ways than one.

Bulk buying means long storage
Promotions and discounts for buying large quantities entice customers to stock up and then discard rather than shopping more frequently and purchasing smaller quantities. Fighting the traffic adds to the inconvenience and irritation of facing the supermarket ordeal if it can be avoided. But supermarkets remain convinced that out of town locations are preferred by customers and persist in trying to prove that bigger is better.

Warehouse clubs, popular across the United States, are particularly good at reminding people that the more they spend, the more they save. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has cooperated with the ConAgra Foods Foundation to create a consumer education programme entitled Home Food Safety…It’s in Your Hands. One section is devoted specifically to this phenomenon.

Shop layouts can also cause problems. Ubiquitous rotisseried chickens and other takeaway dishes may be packed in insulated bags but nothing similar is widely available for frozen foods. The effects of lengthy journey times on either cooling or heating food is yet another consideration in terms of safety.

Store layout unhelpful
Nor are supermarket layouts conducive to safe transportation from shop to home. Freezers, which could be located near checkouts so their contents are the last products selected, are often nowhere near them. As they are more widely used, with frozen ready meals one of the fastest growing sectors in the grocery trade, there is an urgent need for people to understand how to get purchases safely from shop to kitchen.

Designers deliberately put produce aisles nearest the entrance, leaving maximum opportunity for soft, delicate fruit and vegetables to be crushed at the bottom of the trolley. Refrigerated cabinets fill centre aisles, leaving safer packaged and non-food items to be passed last of all. The logic of selling bears little or no resemblance to the logic of logistics.

There is undoubtedly a useful role for retailers to play in encouraging food safety but all too often that last link between manufacturers, official organisations and consumers shows no obvious signs of awareness. Or awareness raising. Although many have dieticians and nutritionists available in-store and online to answer questions, they aren’t generally pro-active and don’t deal, as a rule, with safety issues. There often seems to be a gap between health and safety in this context with few supermarkets having any kind of signage or literature on display at checkouts. American natural and organic specialist Wild Oats Market became a notable exception recently when its corporate dietician’s role was expanded to incorporate food safety.

Why seek help when you don’t think you need it?
This isn’t to say that help is hard to find, simply that end users must frequently take the initiative in seeking it out. The British Food Standards Agency (FSA), for example, has worked with the FDF, Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services, departments of health, education and food, National Farmers Union, British Retail Consortium and British Hospitality Association to set up foodlink, designed to “communicate messages aimed at helping everyone understand and carry out the basic precautions which they can take to reduce the risk of suffering from food poisoning”. Its National Food Safety Week was launched in 1993 and “provides participants with tools to organise awareness raising activities”. The FSA’s other consumer website, eatwell, also contains a detailed and easily assimilated section on how to prepare and store food safely.

The ADA./ConAgra programme, Home Food Safety…It’s in Your Hands, addresses issues such as grilling, lunch boxes and meal time multitasking as well as bulk buying and storing.

One big advantage of the internet is the facility to share information and communicate internationally. Not every country may have a public body, government or trade organisation providing information for consumers but, if they can read English, they can at least be directed to sites set up by British and American agencies and advisers. Many of these organise campaigns for schools so that children learn the fine art of food safety long before they become regular shoppers. Manufacturers’ sites, too, supply information and answer questions that can be accessed before visiting shops that may not have any help or suggestions on offer.