With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, food safety has dominated conversations in the industry and conscientious consumers are more dedicated to the cause than ever. This is particularly so given that much of our food today takes a longer and more complicated path from farm to table, and a single point of contamination can be easily magnified by global distribution.
Such conditions have sparked urgent action from global leaders as food safety hazards become a prominent health risk of the 21st Century.
In a conversation with FIA, Professor Alan Reilly, Former Chief Executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and Abigail Stevenson, Director of the Mars Global Food Safety Centre (GFSC), share their insights towards the changing landscape of and perceptions towards food safety, the importance of regulatory measures and other strategies needed to tackle global challenges today.
FIA: In your experience, how have you seen consumer perceptions towards food safety changed in the last few years, and why do you think there has been that change?
Prof. Reilly: In the last few years, consumers’ concerns with respect to food safety seem to be driven by social media and the misrepresentation of facts which usually play on consumer fears. Consumers tend to believe trending statements on social media, regardless of the authenticity or accuracy of the story.
One of the top concerns that consumers have is on the safety of processed foods. For example, they are concerned about the potential link between the consumption of processed meat products and getting cancer (IARC Monograph), and the link between mortality and consuming “ultra-processed” foods (JAMA Internal Medicine, 2019). “Free from” foods, or the perception that certain ingredients are unhealthy, is also another food concern that has been growing rapidly.
Unlike 10 years ago, consumers today are increasingly concerned about allergens in foods and food authenticity or food fraud.
Stevenson: The reality is that food safety risks are increasing around the globe. These challenges come from a wide range of areas, including changes in agricultural practices, food production, and the environment.
In line with what Professor Reilly mentioned about allergens in foods, pathogens, such as Salmonella, Listeria and E.coli, and mycotoxins, particularly aflatoxins, continue to present a significant challenge to human and pet health. However, what has amplified these risks is the globalisation of trade – a food safety issue in one part of the world can quickly impact the global food supply chain.
At the same time, new opportunities such as e-commerce bring with them challenges around assurance of authenticity for consumers. There is also the issue of reduced consumer trust across the globe – particularly in food companies, owing to a perceived lack of transparency in how food is produced and where it comes from. This has led to calls for industry and regulatory reform.
FIA: Will stronger regulations in countries and food inspections result in significant improvements in food safety? If so, why? And if no, why do you not think so?
Prof. Reilly: Yes, science-based food regulations, which are consistently and independently enforced, have been proven to protect both consumers’ health and interests. The harmonisation of food standards, regionally and globally, can facilitate food trade and improve food safety. The concept of risk-based food inspection has also allowed competent authorities to focus resources on areas of highest risk and the audit of official food controls ensures that the objectives of regulations are being achieved.
Stevenson: Increased regulations have the potential of having a positive effect on food safety, as long as they are fit for purpose, and that those responsible for their implementation understand enough about the subject to ensure the regulations are credible, and based on sound scientific evidence.
For example, China has experienced a number of food safety issues in the past few years. Determined to find a solution, the Chinese government has been working very hard to improve food safety standards. This drive to enhance the nation’s food safety has led Chinese regulators and Mars China management teams to set up the Mars Global Food Safety Centre (GFSC) in China.
At Mars, we believe industry has a crucial role to play in helping all stakeholders in the food supply chain identify risks and solutions; but no one entity can do this alone. That is why we are advocating for a new approach to food safety, one rooted in knowledge sharing and collaboration. The launch of Mars GFSC in 2015 is a result of that.
FIA: What do you think is most needed to address global food safety challenges in the 21st century?
Prof. Reilly: Greater harmonisation of global food standards, greater cooperation between food control agencies, and the building of trust in the food sector are some of the key factors that need to be achieved to address today’s global food safety challenges. Traceability in the global food chain must also be improved.
Stevenson: Open sharing of skills and information is critical to enable safe food for all. The work of the Mars GFSC plays a key role in driving this, through collaborative original research that openly shares results and by bringing together experts to discuss how we enable safe food for all.
As well as our partnerships in China, the GFSC fosters sharing and partnerships through a range of training sessions, conferences, seminars and long-term partnerships with academics, manufacturers, regulators, policymakers and non-government organisations from all over the world. I am very excited to be part of this exciting work, and am incredibly proud of the purpose driven approach Mars take as a company.
You can hear more from Professor Reilly and Abigail Stevenson at FIA Food for the Future Summit on 25 April alongside other industry experts across the food value chain and from all around the world.