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According to the World Health Organization, nearly one in 10 people in the world (about 600 million people) fall ill every year from eating food that has been contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, resulting in the death of more than 400,000 people annually. And, as the food industry increasingly depends on industrialised agricultural and animal production and global supply chains to meet the growing worldwide demand for food, ensuring the safety of food and food products remains a continuing challenge for food producers, distributors and retailers everywhere.
TÜV SÜD food industry professionals have been in the forefront of efforts to reduce the risks of food contamination, working actively with leading companies in the food industry to ensure the safety of their food products. Dr. Ron Wacker, TÜV SÜD’s Global Head of Food, Health and Beauty, has worked on food safety and biotechnology issues since 2001. Dr. Wacker, who holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology, is currently leading the company’s efforts in food analytics testing and the application of blockchain technology to food security. With more than 15 years of experience in the food industry, Mr. Florian Hilt is the International Sales Manager for TÜV SÜD’s Food, Health and Beauty group, and currently works with major food industry processors, brands and retailers around the world.
Dr. Wacker and Hilt recently spoke with Food & Health E-ssentials about the current pain points related to safety in the food industry, and their views on the opportunities for ensuring food safety in the 21st century.
Food & Health E-ssentials: Can you share with us your views about the current global state of food safety? What overall aspects of food safety have improved over the past decade, and what new and emerging challenges are we facing?
Florian Hilt: That’s an interesting question. If you look at food-related notifications on the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) portal for the period from 2012-2018, you’ll see that notifications steadily decreased during the five year period from 2012-2016, then significantly increased again during 2017 and 2018, with many notifications triggering alerts and, ultimately product recalls. So, it might be easy to argue that the state of food safety is deteriorating.
Ron Wacker: But, at the same time, news about scandals involving food safety are being dramatically amplified by social media outlets. Ironically, that’s helping to increase awareness regarding food safety issues. That awareness is serving to spur action by regulators who want their country’s citizens to see them as being proactive, as well as by food operators who understand that food safety is fundamental for their company’s economic success.
F&HE: You work closely with hundreds of companies in the food industry. In general, how would you rate the overall effectiveness of efforts in the industry today to address food safety issues and to ensure access to safe food?
FH: It’s hard to generalise an overall effectiveness rating since our food clients are from all over the world and represent different sectors of the industry. However, most industrialised countries have actively worked for decades to build food safety frameworks into their regulatory structures. At the same time, major food brands and retailers have significantly improved their own food safety policies and practices. And voluntary quality schemes and systems such as the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and the Quality Scheme for Food (QS) have served to strengthen buyer confidence in the safety of food and food products.
RW: The story is a bit different for entities operating in developing countries. There, the lack of resources for food safety monitoring make it difficult to achieve levels of food safety comparable to those found in developed countries. And the adverse impact of other issues like the lack of regulation and low levels of quality awareness are compounded by corruption and outright food fraud. Fortunately, the penetration of global food supply chains into developing countries has helped to thwart these problems to some extent, and has contributed to the proliferation of good food safety practices among a growing number of producers.
F&HE: Based on your experience, what are some of the most difficult food safety challenges you observe facing food producers, distributors and retailers today? How do these challenges impact food safety?
RW: Having a robust food safety system is critical, especially in the face of expanding operations at the international level. We often see companies that have focused on global expansion in the past struggle with harmonising multiple safety systems. They suddenly realise that managing multiple systems increases complexity, complexity that could have been effectively addressed by building a harmonised system at the start.
FH: Obviously, an effective food safety system must be well-designed and frequently updated to reflect newly identified food safety vulnerabilities. But its effectiveness ultimately depends on the extent to which all stakeholders involved in the process have internalised and regularly apply the practices and principles inherent in that system. In food services, for example, even simple activities like enforcing quality awareness and ongoing training can present a challenge without this overarching commitment.
F&HE: Most food producers, distributors and retailers now source food products and ingredients from all over the world. What is the impact of extended global supply chains on food safety?
FH: As we talked about earlier, extended supply chains significantly expand the landscape of food safety issues and challenges. Take, for example, globally traded food categories like nuts, seeds and seafood products, which represent a disproportionally large number of notifications on the EU’s RASFF. These statistics reflect the difficulty that companies have in effectively implementing their food safety monitoring processes at a global scale. The so-called “last mile” in the supply chain can also consist of a number of small and micro-sized operators with poorly structured (or non-existent!) food safety systems that can be extremely difficult to monitor or control.
F&HE: What are some of the more innovative practices and approaches you’ve observed when it comes to food safety?
RW: Quite honestly, you don’t necessarily need to innovate to improve food safety. Instead, it’s all about how your food safety system builds trust in your practices and in those of your supply chain partners. Of course, digitalisation can make a food safety system easier to use by speeding up access to timely and relevant food safety information. Digital solutions such as eHACCP systems can help you to increase the effectiveness of your food safety system, allowing you to better manage and track food safety tasks while also improving overall productivity at the same time. Other solutions like blockchain technologies are still in experimental stages but hold some promise as well. Again, is all about building trust!
F&HE: To what extent are regulations helping or impeding efforts to improve food safety? Are regulations sufficiently harmonised around the world to ease the compliance burden on manufacturers seeking global access? What more could be done in this area?
FH: Unfortunately, current regulations are not well harmonised. We don’t have mutual recognition schemes in place as we do for, say, electronics (i.e., the IECEE’s CB Scheme), and the recognition or acknowledgement of test methods and test reports is often dependent on the judgement of an individual regulator or food inspector. Further, food regulations are often derived from different regulatory sources, resulting in a lack of harmonised standard or standards that can simplify the process of demonstrating compliance.
F&HE: Looking ahead, what are the greatest opportunities facing food producers, distributors and retailers in ensuring food safety in the future?
RW: As we’ve touched on earlier in this interview, creating a culture of safety within your organisation and building trust with consumers will be essential food safety strategies for food industry players in the years ahead. Implementing a robust food safety system can serve as an effective foundation for achieving these strategies. Although it can require lots of work and time, we firmly believe that the payoff will far exceed the investment!