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Food incidents: lessons from the past and anticipating the future

Food incidents: lessons from the past and anticipating the future

The ability to anticipate and mitigate emerging risks has always been of extreme interest to all stakeholders in the food supply chain. The Rapid Alert Systems for Food and Feed (RASFF) was created and implemented in European legislation and provides notifications to 28 EU national food safety authorities, the Commission, EFSA, ESA, Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland of food risks soon after they arise and can lead to more timely and co-ordinated action throughout Europe. Analysis of food incident data by HorizonScanTM since 2006 shows that food safety risks (microbiological or chemical) comprised the vast majority (90%) of formal notifications while issues around headline-grabbing food fraud accounted for only 6.1%. While most of the food safety risks are well known they are usually difficult to predict. As a result, large amounts of resources are spent in mitigation ‘post incident’ (recalls, investigations, prosecution, medical care) due to the inability to anticipate the risk.

A focus of scientists at Fera is how to provide the food industry with better tools to identify these risks before they become incidents.

The ability to predict the next food incident would be of immense benefit to everyone. Brands would not be compromised, consumers would be protected and criminals put out of business. Unfortunately accurate prediction is not yet possible, but by being very aware of both the history and current state of the food landscape it is possible to make projections and implement risk management actions to head off potential problems in an informed way. We provide some examples of varying notoriety to illustrate this assertion and speculate on some key warning signs of nasty surprises that could occur in the future. There are several electronic warning systems providing information about food issues as they occur. For example, it is possible to subscribe to the UK FSA and be emailed breaking alerts on food recalls and other topical events. However, to get the full picture (or as full as it gets) it would be necessary to subscribe to dozens of similar sources of information of various reliability and in numerous languages. Staff at Fera have access to HorizonScan which consolidates food alerts from around the world on a daily basis and looks for trends and anomalies as a means of informing on emerging risks.

Food incidents of the future will arise via a number of routes: climatic changes resulting in shortages; gaps in testing methods identified by the unscrupulous; shifts in the economics of the food supply; and, sometimes, as a complete surprise. In the case of fraud, opportunities to sell low cost foods at premium prices will endure. For example, is it possible that opportunities for skulduggery will arise from poor harvests in both vanilla and maple syrup – high value foods that could tempt the unscrupulous to blend them with synthetic vanilla or sugar solutions, respectively, ‘to meet demand’. Advancements in scientific methodologies will provide information about hazards in foods that were previously unknown, as well as distinguishing abnormal food profiles from normal - so revealing change. This non-targeted approach is being used at Fera to identify new threats more quickly and efficiently. In tandem, our emerging risk group is developing ‘big data’ solutions that will amalgamate several sources of information (macroeconomic, digital media, etc.) in order to better identify potential new food risks.