An industry guide to food contamination, what foods cause it and the areas businesses should invest in to prevent it.
Despite continued investment in education and legislation, food safety scares remain a major issue for global food and drink.
From the contamination of cooked chicken at a UK meat processor, to a salmonella scare at a Ferrero manufacturing plant in Belgium and the discovery of a decade-long outbreak of listeria in smoked fish from Lithuania, the industry has been dogged by a series of high-profile incidents in the last few years alone.
Undetected, these food safety lapses can pose significant risks to consumers. But they can also have a massive impact on the industry. A brand can find that consumer trust becomes eroded, affecting their reputation in the marketplace and damaging the business financially, especially if consumers then choose to spend their money elsewhere. This can then create ripples affecting anyone in the brand’s supply chain.
So how big a problem is food contamination?
Each year unsafe food is the cause of 600 million diseases and 420,000 deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Thirty per cent of these fatalities occur among children under five.
This impact is greater in developing countries, where the lack of a consistent cold chain and standardised hygiene practices can trigger contamination after a product has left the purview of a manufacturer.
But developed markets are by no means invulnerable. In 2023, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued recalls for more than 200 contaminated food items, while the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that one in six Americans gets sick from contaminated foods or drink each year.
So, what continues to drive these widespread food safety concerns? Is industry awareness strong enough? And what can be done to mitigate the risk?
The five bacteria that contaminate foods
Though all foods are vulnerable to contamination in the right circumstances, there remain a few culprits that pose particular problems.
These include a range of animal products, such as raw and undercooked meat, chicken, and other poultry, eggs and cheese. Raw vegetables, grains, and fruits, including leafy greens, sprouts, and flour are also among those foods closely associated with foodborne diseases.
There are five common bacteria that can contaminate these foods:
- E. coli
When consumed, all of these can cause illness and even death.
It’s for this reason that those categories of food cited above are closely regulated by authorities in many food and drink markets. This includes regular checks on food hygiene standards at manufacturers. Yet despite the best efforts, contamination can still occur.
There are various factors at play, which could be contributing to these issues. In the UK, for example, there have been significant drops in the number of food safety officers, with numbers down 45% compared with 10 years ago. This has left gaps in food safety surveillance, a fact amplified by the additional border checks necessitated by Brexit.
New channels through which food and drink are being sold also pose an added risk. Products sold over platforms like Facebook Marketplace are less regulated, experts have warned. As reported by the Grocer, the FSA has worked with Facebook to introduce “a formal mechanism for reporting any concerns we have to them on food safety issues or potential food crime issues,” while there are also plans to establish “mechanisms for monitoring the platform,” said an FSA spokeswoman.
In rare cases, contamination can even be intentional. When lead was found in pouches of children’s apple sauce last year, the investigation pointed towards an intentional act to contaminate the products. And in one extreme incident, a farmer was prosecuted for threatening to contaminate jars of baby formula with salmonella if a retailer didn’t pay him a £750,000 ransom.
Building a positive food safety culture
To combat this, the food industry continues to invest in food safety education to ensure that the people within the sector understand the dangers presented by unexpected food products.
But there is more that can be done. In 2023 Foods Connected poll, in which food industry professionals were asked which product from a list of four could not be responsible for a salmonella outbreak, only 58% identified pasteurised milk as the correct answer, with 20% opting for peanut butter and 12% salami. In fact, 10% selected cantaloupe melons, which were responsible for a recent incident in north America in which 10 people died and hundreds were made sick by the fruit. Bacteria can become trapped in a cantaloupe’s textured skin if food safety guidelines are not followed properly.
That’s why continuing to build a positive food safety culture should be a top priority for businesses.
Food safety processes to reduce the risks
There are certain processes you can put in place to achieve this:
- Provide regular training for all workers on core food safety practises.
- Use one centralised location for all food safety document updates, supplying further resources for clarification and legislation updates.
- Assign specific responsibilities to individuals – and add these to their KPIs.
- Carry out proactive monitoring to ensure compliance. This could be inspections, staff surveys or product sampling.
- Investigate all incidents thoroughly and identify the root cause.
It’s also critical to keep on top of the latest changes to food safety regulations and prepare in plenty of time. Global regulatory bodies provide guidelines for food safety. These bodies include the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Australian government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the FDA in the US.
A new Food Law Code of Practice affecting England and Northern Ireland was published in 2023 that will see previously non-compliant businesses facing additional checks, for instance. The new model for inspections will also ease pressure on those businesses that can demonstrate a strong track record, creating a further impetus to push food safety up the agenda now.
There are also new planned laws affecting specific products in the US. California has signed a law requiring testing of baby food for arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury to begin in 2024, for example.
The bottom line
Ultimately, food and drink businesses need to continue their commitment to keeping food safety best practice at the top of their agenda, proactively improving awareness across levels of the organisation. Doing so not only protects consumer health, but also protects a brand from the damage that can be wrought by even a single food safety misstep.
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