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Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  21 Nov 2011

FOOD & BEVERAGES: Safety Is Key To Food Security


Recent Western Cape Business News

THERE is increasing worldwide concern over food security and sustainable food production. Food security exists when populations have steady access to sufficient and safe food. Without food security, there are food crises and social unrest.

When considering food security, a critical element of this is food safety” says Luther Erasmus, senior manager of PricewaterhouseCoop-ers. “Food security cannot be improved without improving food safety. Unsafe food contains hazardous agents, or contaminants, that can make people sick - either immediately or by increasing their risk of chronic disease – or in severe cases proofs to be fatal. Unsafe food thereby undermines both elements required for food security.”

Erasmus says that consumers expect their food to be safe. “They do not want food safety labels. The big question then is, will consumers pay the price for safe food, and who picks up the various costs of mitigating food safety risks? At this stage, there is no consensus on who should pay for this.”

Erasmus notes that food safety is a concern in both developed and developing countries. “Expanding and increasing complex food supply chains are an issue in all jurisdictions. There is growing movement of people, live animals and food products across borders; the emergence of new or antibiotic-resistant pathogens; and declining water quality and increasing water stresses. All of these impact on the integrity of the food chain.”

The agri food chain includes growing and harvesting agricultural products; the storage, transport, processing and manufacturing of commodities and goods at various stages; distribution to wholesalers and retailers; and final sale to consumers. It stretches from farm to table, and across borders. To ensure the future of food safety, Erasmus says it is crucial to secure the entire agri supply chain. “Contaminants are numerous and can be introduced at many points along the food supply chain. They can cause food-borne disease which can manifest in a range of ways, from mild illness to death. These contaminants can be biological such as bacteria, viruses and parasites; chemical such as antibiotic drug residues and pesticide residues; natural toxicants such as mycotoxins; or environmental threats such as lead or mercury. Also, proper manufacturing practices can be breached along the way. And furthermore, food additives, micronutrients, pesticides and veterinary drugs are deliberately used in the food chain, increasing risks. Also, warmer climates as a result of climate change are releasing more pathogens while there are new emerging and multi-drug resistant organisms.”

Good practices all the way down the chain are essential to ensure that food is safe for consumption. “This means improving the hygienic quality of raw foodstuffs at the agri level. It also includes using food-processing technologies that can reduce or eliminate pathogenic micro-organisms. It also means improving supply management, and facilitating trace-back for food safety and quality which can accommodate the withdrawal or recall of unsafe products.”

Key to food safety is a responsible risk-based approach all along the chain. Erasmus says this mindset of being able to assess and manage risk must be driven from the top by the CEO. “Companies in the food chain must be able to react to break downs. One weak link might expose or compromise an entire chain and even close down an entire industry, and the reaction to supply chain non-compliance potentially affects all parties in the chain.”

Businesses should be able to deal with the physical parameters that affect direct operations, such as shut downs, recalls, production process disruptions and factors that influence security of supplies such as water and energy. There can be significant effect on finances and bottom-line performance, such as cost of recalls, destroying contaminated products, or lost revenue. There could also be litigation, penalties or damages, and corporate reputation may suffer.

Erasmus highlights that regulators play a key role in food safety. He notes that high-profile food safety crises (most recently the E.coli outbreak in Germany which caused 50 deaths in that country alone) have energised national regulators and industry leaders to revisit existing mechanisms for global regulatory co-operation and the oversight of global supply chains. “They are considering what can be done from a regulatory and industry perspective to improve the effectiveness of global food safety protection.”

He highlights that developing country exporters frequently face difficulties in meeting increasingly stringent food safety regulations imposed by developed countries. “Certain exports can be banned or costs of compliance may be prohibitively high and reduce their competitiveness. Countries or private suppliers that invest in the required capacity to meet changing food safety standards may enjoy a strategic advantage.”

The overall message is that the priority all along the food chain must always be on protecting public health. “Economic considerations should never compromise public safety” says Erasmus. “However, the solutions to minimising economic damage and protecting public health are similar. Both require a rapid co-ordinated response involving epidemiologists, microbiologists and food safety authorities to assemble the evidence, pinpointing the source of the outbreak, and removing it from the marketplace as quickly as possible.”

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