Emerging risks and technological advances
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Consumers are cooking less from basic ingredients, buying more convenience food and thus delegating food safety largely to the industrial food-processing companies. At the same time, the younger millennial generation is calling the current value chain into question and demanding more transparency in exchange for their trust.
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Pathogenic microorganisms remain the main threat to food safety with over 400,000 people dying every year from food-borne disease. About 100,000 deaths are due to Salmonella infection. This challenge has been magnified by the discovery in the last decade that Salmonella and other pathogens can live in dry foods like almonds, peanuts, breakfast cereals. In 2007 the FDA introduced legislation requiring pasteurisation of almonds for direct consumption. Wheat flour found to be contaminated by E. coli was recalled in the USA this year, raising the question of whether some foods classed as ready-to-cook should actually meet ready-to-eat standards (in the case of flour because many cooks like to sample unbaked dough).
Today’s biggest health challenge is antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which developed largely due to overuse of antibiotics in animals bred for meat production (also for milk and eggs). Classed as “growth-promoters” the antibiotics form a convenient way of countering deficient hygiene in animal production. But hygiene can be improved right at the beginning of the value chain by ensuring that animal feed is uncontaminated. So feed production should be given the same degree of diligence we give to food preparation in our kitchens. The technology is available, for example as an upgrade to feed pelleting procedures, which would introduce a reliable “kill-step” in a process that can be readily validated. Since feed producers in some countries are reluctant, for financial reasons, to implement the technology, they may have to be pushed by the groups following them in the value chain or by the regulators. Resistance to hygiene-enhancing technologies on economic grounds is also present among food-producers. Perhaps the insurance companies could offer incentives in the form of lower premiums to manufacturers implementing optimal food-safety technology, since this would lower the risk carried.
The FAO estimates that 25% of crops worldwide are contaminated with mycotoxins, poisons produced by moulds. The worst of these is aflatoxin B1, the legal limits for which are in the parts-per-billion range; it is responsible for about 250,000 cases of liver cancer globally. Formerly confined to the tropics, aflatoxin is moving into other regions as a result of climate change. Moulds thrive in warm, humid conditions, and efficient drying procedures after harvesting are essential in combating them. Cleaning by means of optical sorting machines, which have been available for many years, is an effective way of further reducing the mycotoxin risk. The integration of NIR technology into optical sorters expands their abilities. It can be deployed to combat coffee fraud, for instance, by distinguishing Arabica and Robusta beans. In combination with such hard technologies, big data and the Cloud can be used to improve traceability and transparency through the value chain, and thus to enhance trust.