“I don’t think most people are aware of the amount of work that goes into ensuring that the food they eat is safe,” says John O’Brien, Head of the Food Safety and Integrity Research Programme at Nestlé’s international research centre.
“It’s only when something goes wrong that they sit up and take notice.”
Things went badly wrong in Japan in March 2011, when the country was hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that destabilised its nuclear power station in Fukushima.
“The earthquake happened on a Friday and by Monday it was clear there was a serious nuclear emergency,” says John.
“Immediately, we ordered radiometric equipment and deployed new methods and tools in our manufacturing facilities near the affected area to monitor for radioactivity.
“Within two weeks we were able to operate what we call a ‘positive release system’, meaning our products were safe for consumption and could leave the factory.”
The ability to react quickly to unforeseen events is a vital part of ensuring food safety.
It’s why Nestlé keeps gamma counters in strategic locations around the world.
“We don’t use them all routinely,” says John. “We have them ready in case of a crisis.”
Radioactive contamination is an extreme example of the kind of accident that can happen in the food chain. The everyday dangers are much closer to home.
More often than not, foodborne illnesses arise from a failure to follow basic hygiene rules when preparing raw, unpackaged products.
“Let’s say someone is preparing uncooked chicken in their kitchen,” says John. “They handle it, they touch surfaces, and they make other food without washing their hands.
“Then they get sick. Not from the chicken, but from the food they cross-contaminated.
“We have to educate people across the supply chain, including consumers, about the risks, and about how they can help themselves and others.
“As an industry, we have a responsibility to address the incidence of foodborne infection.”
The World Health Organization estimates that food and waterborne diarrhoeal diseases kill about 2 million people annually, mostly in developing countries.
In reality the figure could be much higher, as foodborne infections are largely under-reported.
Common foodborne pathogens include listeria, E.coli and salmonella. They take advantage of weak immune systems, especially those of infants, the infirm, pregnant women, and the elderly.
As the size of some of these more vulnerable populations continues to increase, the number of people at greatest risk of infection is expanding.
To cope with the consequences of these changing demographics, John says food companies must constantly improve their procedures.
“It’s not enough to do the same as we did before. Safety is never static. Expectations are always changing, regulations are changing, and our knowledge is changing.”
In 2013, Nestlé opened the most advanced laboratories of their kind in the industry to study foodborne pathogens.
The labs have a high level of ‘bio-containment’, with sealed areas restricted to trained personnel who must wear protective clothing and follow strict hygiene procedures.
“We built the labs because we recognize that there are emerging risks,” John explains.
“Pathogenic E.coli were not really an issue in previous decades. They were probably always there, but we just didn’t have the technology to identify them.”
Although advances in science help food safety experts to combat harmful microorganisms, new methods or ways of working can pose their own challenges.
“As we’ve become more skilled at taking bacteria out, we’ve had to put more rigorous measures in place to prevent the possibility of anything getting back in,” John continues.
“In the past, E.coli would have had to compete with other bacteria present in a food.
Today, food is decontaminated during processing, but if it’s re-contaminated by a pathogen, that pathogen can grow unchecked.”
Nestlé uses highly sophisticated technology to rapidly test for a wide range of microorganisms and substances that are harmful to human health.
The company does more food testing than any other entity in the world, carrying out 100 million tests a year on its products, including 1.5 million for salmonella alone.
But as John points out, Nestlé doesn’t test a product to check that it’s safe. It does so to verify that it is.
“We have so many stringent, inbuilt controls to guarantee safety, from raw material selection through to processing and packaging, that by the time we reach the test result, we’re already extremely confident that the product is safe.”
Over the years, the industry approach to food safety has moved from looking for defects in finished products, to trying to identify their root cause as early as possible in the supply chain.
“We want to know if there’s a problem, where it’s coming from, if we understand it and how we can prevent it,” says John.
Nestlé has an early warning system to help it pinpoint signals that may develop into issues.
“The earlier you identify a potential risk, the more chance you have of controlling it,” says John.
But control is not always easy in the long, complex supply chains of international food trade.
“If someone is committing food fraud by adulterating a product, it might not make the product unsafe, but it compromises its integrity, and that’s unacceptable.”
“We’ve helped to develop genetic screening techniques for meat and fish that tackle 20 or more species at a time, so we can be sure a product is what it’s supposed to be.”
As recent cases of food fraud in Europe have shown, food safety issues are not only about actual risk, but also the perception of risk.
“Consumers rightly expect that the product they buy is safe to eat and contains what it says on the label,” says John.
“But they also expect fewer preservatives on that label. It’s a challenge and we must rise to it.”
As well as developing improved processes, he thinks industry needs to do a better job of explaining the advantages of its existing ones.
“We are seeing some consumer resistance to new food technologies that are perfectly safe, and to other, more established techniques, which have had public health benefits.
“Take pasteurization, which can be used to kill dangerous pathogens in milk.
“Before the widespread introduction of pasteurisation, milk was a common source of bacteria that caused deadly bovine tuberculosis and other foodborne illnesses.
“Some people believe food processing itself is a bad thing, but we’re all alive today because of it. This is the reality.”
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