Food safety challenges for the year ahead

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 6th January 2009

Bill Marler, food safety advocate and managing partner of American foodborne illness law firm Marler Clark, asked the food safety community to weigh in on the most pressing food safety challenges for the coming year. The most prominent are listed below:

1. Globalisation: More international recalls and outbreaks due to expanding globalisation of the food supply and the challenges of oversight/infrastructure in developing countries. International challenges probably deserve a list of their own, but in the mean time, this wide umbrella includes the possibility of bioterrorism and/or “economic/chemical terrorism” (intentional adulterations with a profit motive, like the melamine contamination in China).

2. Animal to Human contamination: More contamination events involving the whole food chain (from animal feed to animals to humans). Whether it’s dioxin in Irish hogs or melamine in Chinese egg-laying hens, it’s clear that what goes into animals eventually goes into us. As the market for animals-as-food grows, so does the price to feed those animals and then the impetus to cut corners.

3. Having to do more with less: Public funding for food safety research, surveillance, and education in the US is down, but the work load (and its importance) continues to grow.

4. 21st Century communication: In addition to improving communication between each other, food safety agencies need to improve communication with consumers. Outbreaks will move through the population with increasing speed, and agencies need to streamline their processes (and embrace social media like twitter and Facebook) in order to keep up.

5. Balancing food protection and environmental health: How to balance on-farm food safety practices with the protection of the environment.

6. Zoonotic diseases: The rise of grain prices and starvation in other parts of the world will have many consequences, including the possibility that as people hunt wild animals for food, they may become exposed to new diseases, triggering a zoonotic virus jumping into humans – according to those questioned. (A zoonotic virus is one that originates in animals and crosses to humans, like avian influenza.)

7. Consumers and food safety: How do consumers sort through the cacophony of information on food? What’s “safe”? What does “organic” really mean? Will we get closer to farm-to-fork tracking of all fruits and vegetables this year? Who does the consumer believe/trust? Included in this category are: the raw milk controversy, food irradiation, and new labelling laws like ‘country of origin’ (and, in Australia, a commitment by many manufacturers to use the daily intake guide labelling system).

“Food safety is a vital part of the overall health of our country and our economy,” Mr Marler said from his office in Seattle. “(We are) facing enormous challenges, and food safety is certainly one of them.”