12 Apr 2016 --- Safety is a natural prerequisite for our food. NutritionInsight looks at the complex process by which food reaches the consumer's table, and highlights the advances in systems that ensure quality and safety of food from farm-to-fork.
Previously, the primary objective of food production was to make sufficient quantities of food at affordable prices. As farming productivity improves, consumers focus more on quality and safety of food, and how it was produced. The term "From Farm-to-Fork" refers to the different stages of the food chain system from production to consumption.
Nowadays, manufacturers are relying more on global suppliers to provide ingredients for their finished goods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has opened offices in several countries, including China, India, Europe (EU), Middle East, and Latin America, to promote and protect the public health of the United States. In the US, most food companies abide by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and other applicable laws and regulations, to ensure that the food products they produce, package, transport, store or sell are safe for consumers to eat.
Many national food industries have voluntarily embraced the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) approach to improve food safety. Although HACCP is not required under Chinese law unless food is exported, it is encouraged. Companies exporting to the UK have to reach the British Retail Consortium (BRC)'s standards to be certified for traceability, quality and food safety via their own inspectors.
The EU works to safeguard food quality in many ways: Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and Council includes the general principles and requirements of food law, including the European Food Safety Authority. The rapid alert system for food and feed (RASFF) is a swift notification system for concerns about food and drinks in response to food safety threats.
In general, there are two types of food safety: the absence of chemicals at levels which may be harmful to health (either acute or long-term), and the absence of micro-organisms (which may be carried by animals; including Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.Coli and Listeria bacteria; bandworms and Cryptosporidia parasites, and viruses such as Hepatitis A) in amounts which may cause illness.
In December 2015, the WHO reported that 31 food hazards caused 600 million foodborne illnesses and 420,000 deaths in 2010.
A major threat to human health emerged in the 1980s when cattle showed symptoms of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). To avoid the spread of the "mad cow disease", certain animal tissues were excluded from human consumption. These preventative measures were further enforced when a link was established between BSE and CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease) in humans.
More recently, in 2013, foods advertised as containing beef or pork were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat – as much as 100% of the meat content in some cases. Although this EU meat adulteration did not cause a widespread foodborne illness epidemic, it did cause consumer outrage.
Andrew Caines, Group Technical Director of leading food supplier Cranswick PLC told NutritionInsight about the challenges involved in supplying food products in the UK today: “In addition to the BRC compliance of our sites and their food safety and quality management systems, many of our pork products are in full compliance with the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme (Red Tractor), and the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) Pork and Pork Meat Product standards. This provides the consumer with confidence that our products are produced within an assured supply chain, to specified standards, that are traceable all the way back to the farm.”
“In the last 12 months we have carried out 191 supply chain audits to assure the safety, traceability, quality and provenance of the raw materials we purchase.”
Farm-to-Fork food safety
There are five main stages of the ‘farm-to-fork’ food supply chain:
Farming practices vary between regions and even between individual farms within the same region, due to its produce e.g. field crops (cereals, fruit and vegetables), livestock for meat, milk or egg production, or "farm" fish, shellfish and crustaceans.
Some farmers have elected to practice "organic" or "biological" farming, which they say produces more "natural" food. However, since certain toxins, chemicals and micro-organisms occur naturally in many farm products, organic farming does not necessarily mean food is healthier.
Strict hygienic practices have to be observed on the farm to limit spread of disease. FSMA standards for growing and harvesting include appropriate worker training to avoid contamination by agricultural water, soil, animal waste, or equipment use.
2.Transport and storage
Best practices for sanitary food transportation include proper refrigeration, maintaining temperature via air circulation systems, adequate cleaning vehicles between loads, and proper protection during transportation. Monitoring during storage is also essential.
Just this month, a new food safety rule was finalized under the FSMA that will help to prevent food contamination during transportation in the US by road vehicle or rail. The action is part of a larger effort to focus on prevention of food safety problems throughout the food chain, and the rule implements the Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 2005 (SFTA).
3.Processing & Packaging
Consumer confidence in food safety is vital to the food processing industry. Regulations enforced by the US government to eliminate and/or prevent multiplication of microbes are frequently adopted and used by countries around the world to prevent foodborne diseases.
To keep food safe, innovative packaging formats that prevent product tampering of bulk shipments are recommended, e.g. use of active packaging (flexible packaging that changes color when its integrity has been compromised).
Materials also matter. The inks used for printing must not contain dangerous substances that could migrate through packaging and into the food. Similarly, when using laminate films, all layers must be food-safe and stop migration of hazardous substances into the food.
Adverse health outcomes can also result from incorrect labeling (e.g. missing detail on the list of ingredients, such as allergens) or a jar lacking a proper seal. Larger international manufacturers such as Coca-Cola are mandating that even their packaging suppliers be GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) certified.
Just last week, the USDA announced that up to US$44 million will be made available to farmers, ranchers and businesses to expand markets through the Value-Added Producer Grant program. The money is also intended to help implement food safety plans.
In the UK, the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) – made-up of 500 businesses and one of the largest co-operatives in the world – supports farmers who want to sell their products direct to the consumer from farm shops, farmers’ markets, home delivery, on-farm catering, or pick-your-own farms. Members are also offers online training in Food Safety and Food Hygiene.
5.Consumer & consumption
Care by the consumer or professional food-handler is vital for food safety. This can be in the form of adequate washing (especially for fruit and vegetables irrigated with contaminated water), cooking (e.g. for chickens and eggs where Salmonella may exist), pasteurizing, sterilizing, and appropriate storage.
Farmers, agricultural scientists, governments and manufacturers, must continue to focus on developing the best growing and living conditions for crops and animals with minimum impact on the environment.
Professor Bruce German, Director at the Foods for Health Institute, University of Davis, California, believes New Zealand can lead the world in future integrated "farm-to-fork" initiatives. He told NutritionInsight: “'Farm-to-Fork' is an attractive construct as it captures the principle of integrating human health to the entire environment. Health, Quality, Sustainability and Safety are not isolated processes to be added at the end, they are principles that rule every step of the way.”
“New Zealand has the assets to become a thought leader, providing inspirational proofs of principle and constructing incubators of innovation for this new ‘Biological Century’. It is already an agricultural economy with a well-educated population of innovative young people who have grown up simultaneously in urban environments surrounded by 'life'. They have prioritized innovation in agriculture as a national priority. Now the question is: can they do it?”
Food manufacturers, their suppliers, contractors, equipment providers, and other partners, often each have their own software systems for managing food quality and monitoring processes. Using technology such as wireless digital interactive checklists to enable real-time, 24/7 end-to-end supply chain visibility with sensors, may be the way to save costs.
Farm-to-Table (F2T) restaurants have already gained popularity globally. They avoid the whole process of using products purchased by manufacturers, packaged at a warehouse, picked up by a wholesaler, and shipped to the retailer.
However, there are concerns that some fast food restaurants may “hijack” the descriptive terms of the movement for their own gain…
Therefore, in the future, indoor farms may also cut out the deliveryman. INFARM has set up a micro-farm inside of a Metro supermarket in Berlin, Germany. Plants are grown hydroponically (without soil) under LED lights designed to replicate sunlight. Shoppers can walk right into the “farm” and harvest their own ultra-fresh produce.
Other supermarkets as well as restaurants and hotels may follow suit soon.
It seems like “locavores” – those making a conscious effort to eat food produced in their surrounding area – are showing no signs of stopping momentum.
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