How safe is the Food Supply?
Improvements in science and increased awareness of food safety risks in industrialized nations led to the development of new food safety regulations in the 1990s and the establishment of specialized regulatory agencies. Despite the sophistication of infrastructure and detailed food safety programmes, food safety risks exist, hence continuous vigilance is required. Reports of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that from 1996 to 2002 the estimated incidence of several important food-borne diseases including those caused by Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Cryptosporidium, had declined. However, there have been recent product recalls and outbreaks for 2007 in the United States (US) although the food supply is considered one of the safest in the world.
The epidemiology of food borne disease in a population is the result of complex interactions among environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic factors. As new foods and those from alternative sources become available, new opportunities for transmission of food-borne disease often follow. Other factors which contribute to the dynamics of food-borne disease include changes in human and animal demographics and behaviour as well as changes in microorganisms and new food production and processing technologies. Table 1 shows the various routes: pre-harvest and post-harvest whereby fruits and vegetables may become contaminated.
Table 1. Sources of pathogenic microorganisms on fresh fruits and vegetables
|Irrigation water||Harvesting equipment|
|Water used to apply fungicides, insect ides||Transport containers|
|Green or inadequately composted manure||Wild and domestic animals|
|Wild and domestic animals||Dust|
|Insects||Wash and rinse water|
|Human handling||Processing equipment|
Source: James, Jennylynd. 2006. Microbial Hazard Identification in Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. John Wiley & Sons Publ.
The emergence of viruses (e.g. Avian influenza A - H5N1) and diseases (e.g. variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - vCJD) which are transmitted from animals to humans are posing new threats to the world food supply. There exists strong epidemiologic and laboratory evidence for a causal association between vCJD and the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE outbreak) in cattle. Consumers continue to express concerns about the safety of genetically modified foods and their concerns are being addressed through ongoing evaluation of the risks.
Food Safety Intervention Programmes / Systems
Intervention programmes are needed at all stages of the food chain from the farm to the customer’s plate. Food legislation and Guidelines may be mandatory e.g. the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) System for processed food or voluntary e.g. the US Guide to Minimize Microbial Contamination in Fresh Fruit and Vegetables and EurepGAP. The latter was developed by European retailers and the protocol covers environmental and social issues in the growing operation. Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) describe preventive measures implemented in farming operations to reduce product contamination. The basic principle is that prevention of microbial and chemical contamination - mainly pesticides, is more effective than relying on corrective measures. Given the large number of small scale farms in ACP countries, meeting these standards for export as shown in Figure 1 is proving to be extremely difficult.
Figure 1 – Use of portable toilets in fields for worker hygiene
Large retailers encourage the use of GAPs by demanding documentary evidence and audit results of practices. This offers assurance of safe handling when farms and pack-houses are audited to guidelines and standards.
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) as established by the FAO Codex Alimentarius provide guidance on facility design and the safe handling of products during production and packing. In the fresh produce sector, packhouses should follow GMP guidelines.
Auditing the System
Multinational retailers and importers are strongly motivated to prevent a food safety crisis to avoid loss of reputation, plant closure, reduced stock prices, lawsuits or higher insurance premiums. They also promote self-regulation and third-party certification, controlling commodities at two or more stages of production. Self-audits may be used as a tool to monitor internal Quality Assurance (QA) programmes. They can also verify practices of suppliers using second party audits. While, third party audits are conducted by neutral auditing firms that carry out inspections on behalf of a retailer or other interested party. Customers are assured when information on the safety of products is verified by the results of third-party certification.
Auditing and certification protocols differ and there is no single accreditation body. The United Kingdom Food Safety Act 1990 states that all persons involved in supplying food are obliged to take all reasonable precautions and exercise all due diligence in avoiding failure when presenting food products. Retailers are thus obligated to verify technical performance at food production sites. In 2003, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) proposed a Food Technical Standard applying to enclosed areas for food production. The standard has been updated with version 4, the BRC Global Standard – Food, in June, 2005. This standard for food establishments is considered a major international standard specifying safety, quality, and operational criteria within a food manufacturing operation. Accredited auditing bodies inspect food establishments against a standard. Schemes like the British Retail Consortium’s Global Food Standard provide training for auditors based on the set standard to ensure uniformity in auditing.
Another example of a Certification protocol is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9000 series or “EN 29000” in Europe. In 1987, ISO published a series of five international standards (ISO 9000, 9001, 9002, 9003, and 9004), developed by the ISO Technical Committee (TC) 176 on quality systems. This series, together with the terminology and definitions contained in ISO Standard 8402, provides guidance on the selection of an appropriate quality management system for supplier operations. Conformance to ISO 9000 standards is required in purchasing specifications set by some companies. The ISO 9000 Standard Series was adopted in the United States as the ANSI/American Society for Quality Control (ANSI/ASQC Q 9000 series). In Europe, the series was adopted by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) as the European Norm (EN) 29000 Series. Many countries have national standards that are identical or equivalent to the ISO 9000 Standard Series. Government regulation plays an important role in addition to those set by the private sector.
Food Security Guidance and Bioterrorism
After the terrorist attack in the US on September 11th, 2001 the need to enhance security was reinforced. Congress responded by passing the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Bioterrorism Act), which President Bush signed into law June 12, 2002. On March 19, 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the availability of four guidance documents addressing food and cosmetic security preventive measures. One addresses food producers, processors, and transporters; another is addressing importers and filers; a third deals with retail food stores and food service establishments; and, the fourth addresses cosmetics processors and transporters. The guidance documents show preventive measures that establishments may take to minimize the risk that food or cosmetics under their control may be subject to tampering or other malicious, criminal, or terrorist actions. On July 12, 2006 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a guide to help farmers protect crops and animals from security threats. The guide, titled "Pre-Harvest Security Guidelines and Checklist 2006", offers voluntary, practical measures to help farmers protect crops and animals from natural disasters and naturally or intentionally introduced pathogens.
Challenges for ACP Countries
The ACP Group of States lack the physical, financial and human resources to respond to the global food safety challenges. These have been documented in several international forums. The limited enabling infrastructure to facilitate the development and implementation of food standards and respond to the conformity requirements of global food safety systems pose significant challenges to resource poor countries.
Food safety systems in Africa
Harare, Zimbabwe hosted the FAO/WHO Regional Conference on Food Safety in October 2005. This conference attended by policy makers and technical experts from throughout the region was a forum for identifying the challenges facing African countries in developing food safety programmes.
Dumping of sub-standard food in countries emerging from war situations
Lack of reference standards for laboratories
No maintenance of equipment
Lack of collaboration among countries.
Best practices identified for cooperation and coordination of food safety activities included:
A one source food safety information centre (Ghana)
Establishment of a Food Control Authority (Mali, Morocco, Zimbabwe)
Sharing of laboratory facilities (Southern African Development Community, SADC region)
Sharing of information in food safety emergencies (SADC region)
Establishment of pan-African standards based on Codex Alimentarius Standards
Strengthening regional representation at Codex meetings
Inventory of capabilities of food safety laboratories in the region
Identifying centres of excellence in aspects of laboratory analysis
Establishing a food safety desk within the African Union
Including food-borne disease surveillance in national integrated disease surveillance systems for reporting at the regional level.
An integrated approach to Biosecurity and food safety implementation was suggested and a five year strategic plan for food safety in Africa was proposed for adoption by the United Nations Food and Health Agencies and the African Union.
Food safety systems in the Caribbean
Food legislation is enforced by different Ministries in each country: Agriculture, Health, Economy, Tourism, Trade and Industry, and others. Multiple agencies, fragmented responsibilities, and limited human and financial resources, make achieving uniform regional standards difficult. Measures are needed throughout the region to improve food safety systems. In 2002, priority was given by Caribbean governments to the establishment of the Caribbean Agricultural Health and Food Safety Agency (CAHFSA) to harmonize regional and national plant and animal health and food safety policies.
A comprehensive plan was proposed to improve food safety and quality for domestic as well as export markets at a regional meeting organized by FAO/WHO in Costa Rica in December 2005. Science-based regulations and the use of risk analysis to identify critical points in the food chain are needed to assist government monitoring programmes.
Food safety systems in the Pacific Region
FAO and WHO have worked over the years to provide a forum for policy making and capacity building in food safety for the region. In 2001, the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific endorsed a Regional Strategy for food safety. In May 2004, experts from 40 countries in Asia and the Pacific met in Malaysia to review threats to public health and international trade posed by potentially unsafe food. Like Africa and the Caribbean, with so many different government agencies, and numerous small producers, harmonizing food safety systems for the region remains a challenge.
Subsequent meetings and workshops proposed the following:
Develop policies, legislation and standards that are relevant and transparent for the region
Enhance safety and quality of food through more effective import and export control and information networks
Build regional capacity to assess risk related to food safety
Build regional capacity in food-safety training and education
Build regional capacity to assess risk related to food patterns
Develop a regulatory approach to support national nutrition policies
Increase the effective participation of Pacific island countries in the work of Codex Alimentarius.
The Way Forward for ACP countries
Dr Kraisid Tontisirin, FAO’s Director of Food and Nutrition said: “Food safety is the bedrock for everything else in the area of nutrition and food security. … Ensuring safe and nutritious food is an important pre-condition to food security.” The ACP scientific community must show leadership in guiding government policy on national and regional standards and food safety systems and support the food industry in its efforts to conform to international standards. However, this must be done in the context of the level at which ACP food systems operate. In addition, the following recommendations are proposed:
Governments and regulators should take ownership in developing and managing food safety systems to safeguard public health and trade.
Scientists, regulators, industry and consumer groups should collaborate with governments in developing and implementing food standards and safety systems and mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating all levels across the various typologies that exist in the food production to consumption chain.
Universities and other publicly funded research organizations should embark on research in collaboration with government and industry to identify risks and region-specific food safety challenges.
Universities and publicly funded research institutes should develop scientific surveillance methods and response programmes in the unlikely event of a food safety crisis.
The public should be educated on food safety and safe food handling. This is a shared responsibility of the science community, government and the agri-food industry.
Dr. Jennylynd James is Food Consultant for Caribbean Enterprises in Dublin, Ireland.
CDC. 2007. FoodNet.
Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). 2006. USDA releases farm biosecurity guide. University of Minnesota.
FAO 2004. Final Report FAO /WHO Regional Conference on Food Safety for Asia and the Pacific, Seremban, Malaysia, 24-27 May, 2004.
FAO. 2005. Final Report FAO/WHO Regional Conference on Food Safety in Africa, Harare, Zimbabwe, 3-6 October 2005.
FAO. 2006. Final Report FAO/WHO Regional Conference on Food Safety for the Americas and the Caribbean, San Jose, Costa Rica, 6-9 December 2005.
James, Jennylynd. 2006. Microbial Hazard Identification in Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. John Wiley & Sons Publ.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2002. Bioterrorism Act.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2003. Guidance for Industry: Importers and Filers: Food Security Preventive Measures Guidance.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2003. Guidance for Industry: Food Producers, Processors, and Transporters: Food Security Preventive Measures Guidance.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2003. Guidance for Industry: Retail Food Stores and Food Service Establishments. Food Security Preventive Measures Guidance. Final Guidance.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2003. Guidance for Industry: Cosmetics Processors and Transporters. Cosmetics Security Preventive Measures Guidance. Final Guidance.