This article will center on “What is food safety and why is it important?”.
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The first question is “What is Food Safety”?
What is Food Safety
Food Safety in simplified terms refers to handling, preparing and storing food in the best way to reduce the risk individuals becoming sick from foodborne illnesses.
Food safety is a global concern that covers a variety of different areas of everyday life. The principles of food safety aim to prevent food from becoming contaminated and causing food poisoning. This is achieved through a variety of different avenues, some of which are:
- Properly cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces, equipment and utensils.
- Maintaining a high level of personal hygiene, especially hand-washing.
- Storing, chilling and heating food correctly with regards to temperature, environment and equipment.
- Implementing effective pest control
- Comprehending food allergies, food poisoning and food intolerance.
Regardless of why you are handling food, whether as part of your job or cooking at home, it is essential to always apply the proper food safety principles. A number of potential food hazards exist in a food handling environment, many of which carry with them serious consequences.
According to the latest OzFoodNet annual report, Monitoring the Incidence and Cause of Diseases Potentially Transmitted by Food in Australia, 5.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur annually in Australia, many of which are preventable. The cost of these illnesses is estimated at a staggering AUD $1.2 billion.
Key facts about food safety according to WHO
- Access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health.
- Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.
- An estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).
- US$110 billion is lost each year in productivity and medical expenses resulting from unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries.
- Children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125 000 deaths every year.
- Diarrhoeal diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230 000 deaths every year.
- Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick.
- Foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems, and harming national economies, tourism and trade.
- Food supply chains now cross multiple national borders. Good collaboration between governments, producers and consumers helps ensure food safety.
Major foodborne illnesses and causes
Foodborne illnesses are usually infectious or toxic in nature and caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances entering the body through contaminated food or water. Foodborne pathogens can cause severe diarrhoea or debilitating infections including meningitis.
Chemical contamination can lead to acute poisoning or long-term diseases, such as cancer. Foodborne diseases may lead to long-lasting disability and death. Examples of unsafe food include uncooked foods of animal origin, fruits and vegetables contaminated with faeces, and raw shellfish containing marine biotoxins.
- Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli are among the most common foodborne pathogens that affect millions of people annually – sometimes with severe and fatal outcomes. Symptoms are fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Examples of foods involved in outbreaks of salmonellosis are eggs, poultry and other products of animal origin. Foodborne cases with Campylobacter are mainly caused by raw milk, raw or undercooked poultry and drinking water. Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli is associated with unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Listeria infection leads to miscarriage in pregnant women or death of newborn babies. Although disease occurrence is relatively low, listeria’s severe and sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly among infants, children and the elderly, count them among the most serious foodborne infections. Listeria is found in unpasteurised dairy products and various ready-to-eat foods and can grow at refrigeration temperatures.
- Vibrio cholerae infects people through contaminated water or food. Symptoms include abdominal pain, vomiting and profuse watery diarrhoea, which may lead to severe dehydration and possibly death. Rice, vegetables, millet gruel and various types of seafood have been implicated in cholera outbreaks.
Antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, are essential to treat infections caused by bacteria. However, their overuse and misuse in veterinary and human medicine has been linked to the emergence and spread of resistant bacteria, rendering the treatment of infectious diseases ineffective in animals and humans. Resistant bacteria enter the food chain through the animals (e.g. Salmonella through chickens). Antimicrobial resistance is one of the main threats to modern medicine.
Norovirus infections are characterized by nausea, explosive vomiting, watery diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Hepatitis A virus can cause long-lasting liver disease and spreads typically through raw or undercooked seafood or contaminated raw produce. Infected food handlers are often the source of food contamination.
Some parasites, such as fish-borne trematodes, are only transmitted through food. Others, for example tapeworms like Echinococcus spp, or Taenia solium, may infect people through food or direct contact with animals. Other parasites, such as Ascaris, Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolytica or Giardia, enter the food chain via water or soil and can contaminate fresh produce.
Prions, infectious agents composed of protein, are unique in that they are associated with specific forms of neurodegenerative disease. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cow disease”) is a prion disease in cattle, associated with the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans. Consuming bovine products containing specified risk material, e.g. brain tissue, is the most likely route of transmission of the prion agent to humans.
Of most concern for health are naturally occurring toxins and environmental pollutants.
- Naturally occurring toxins include mycotoxins, marine biotoxins, cyanogenic glycosides and toxins occurring in poisonous mushrooms. Staple foods like corn or cereals can contain high levels of mycotoxins, such as aflatoxin and ochratoxin, produced by mould on grain. A long-term exposure can affect the immune system and normal development, or cause cancer.
- Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are compounds that accumulate in the environment and human body. Known examples are dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are unwanted by-products of industrial processes and waste incineration. They are found worldwide in the environment and accumulate in animal food chains. Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and cause cancer.
- Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury cause neurological and kidney damage. Contamination by heavy metal in food occurs mainly through pollution of air, water and soil.
Difference between Food Safety and Food Hygiene
Often times some persons use Food Safety and Food hygiene interchangeably, but the two (2) are not exactly the same.
The term ‘Food Safety’ encompasses all the important practices that businesses must follow to ensure food is fit for consumption while ‘Food Hygiene’ is one of these important practices, which means it’s a subcategory of ‘food safety’.
Because food hygiene falls under the umbrella term ‘Food Safety’, Food Hygiene itself does not include all the other key areas of food safety. This is an important difference to be aware of, particularly when applying food management procedures to your premises. Food safety refers to an entire system of managing risks. Meanwhile, food hygiene refers to an individual set of practices for controlling only one aspect.
Knowing this will help you better determine what level of knowledge people in your business require and how to apply all the necessary controls. This, in turn, can help you make a more informed decision about improving your business’s practices and what additional training you may need.
An understanding of Food Safety is always recommended for everyone in food-related roles, so they can contribute to other essential areas. However, they won’t need the same level of knowledge as those in management positions about other aspects of food safety.
Key elements of Food Safety:
- Ensuring everyone follows good food hygiene practices: This includes personal hygiene, safe handling of food, preventing cross-contamination, cleaning procedures, allergen control, safe storage of food, and cooking temperatures.
- Implementing appropriate food management systems: This refers to the overarching system that keeps food and the premises safe and hygienic. The main aspect is HACCP, but it also refers to record keeping, labelling, traceability, supply and delivery, and staff training.
- Maintaining hygienic premises: The maintenance of the building is another key aspect of risk prevention. This includes the general cleanliness and upkeep of the building, having an appropriate layout, suitable lighting, ventilation, pest control, and waste management.
Food safety regulations in a globalized world
Food products are among the most-traded commodities in the world. As markets become increasingly globalized with each passing year, and as the world’s population continues to grow, the global food supply chain will only continue to increase in scale and complexity. Precisely because of these megatrends influencing the mass production and distribution of food, food safety compliance has never been more important.
Every country has different regulatory bodies that preside over the definition and enforcement of domestic food safety standards. In order to sell or manufacture food products in any given country, domestic and international businesses alike are subject to the food safety legislation and enforcement measures of that nation. In the European Union, for example, food safety legislation is detailed in Regulation (EC) 852. In the United States, the Food Safety Modernization Act outlines the legal requirements for food safety.
Around the world, the majority of laws about food safety are based on two concepts: HACCP and GMP:
HACCP – Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points is a systemic, risk-based approach to preventing the biological, chemical, and physical contamination of food in production, packaging, and distribution environments. The HACCP concept is designed to counter health hazards by identifying potential food safety problems before they happen, rather than inspect food products for hazards after the fact. The HACCP concept entails controlling for contaminants at a number of key junctures in the food production process and strict adherence to hygiene practices throughout.
GMP – Good Manufacturing Practices are internationally recognized quality assurance guidelines for the production of food, beverages, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, and medical devices. These guidelines lay out the protocols which manufacturers must implement to assure that their products are consistently high-quality from batch to batch and safe for human use, including mandatory product inspection at critical control points.
There are also several privately-owned international organizations that provide comprehensive guidelines for auditing food manufacturers on the basis of food safety and hygiene. These international standards facilitate the global food trade by helping food industry players from different countries to ensure that food quality and safety standards are met in a way that transcends borders.
In addition to complying with the food safety laws of the countries in which they are active, global market leaders in the food industry often pursue certification with a number of private food regulators. They may furthermore demand that the upstream and downstream suppliers they work with provide proof of the same certifications.
Internationally recognized food safety organizations and certification programs include:
IFS Food 6.1 – The IFS Food Standard is part of the Global Food Safety Initiative and is an international standard for performing audits of food manufacturing processes. Their compliance audits concern both the factory floor and administrative duties, with regulations on topics ranging from the installation of food defense and inspection equipment to thorough bookkeeping.
BRCGS – The British Retail Consortium Global Standards (formerly BRC) are a set of international consumer protection certifications that provide safety criteria for global food retailers, food manufacturers, packaging manufacturers, and food service organizations. Their certification for food manufacturers includes an assessment of the equipment used to detect and remove physical contaminants.
SQF – The Safe Quality Food Institute provides detailed safety programs tailored to the specific concerns of different food industry players. The various SQF codes are segmented to address the unique conditions of each stage of the food production life cycle, from agriculture to packaging, from manufacturing to retail. Each SQF program is internationally recognized.
Each of these private food safety organizations have built their certification programs around ISO 22000, an international norm for food safety management systems:
ISO 22000 – The International Organization for Standardization details a proactive management plan for food safety relevant for any organization along the food supply chain. ISO 22000 includes an interactive communication strategy between upstream and downstream industry players and a comprehensive system for management. Furthermore, the norm encompasses a model for how to implement a customized HACCP concept depending on the industry, product, and facilities. For instance, should a risk of metal contamination be identified, ISO 22000 may recommend the installation of a metal detector with a rejection mechanism to manage the hazard.
Why Is Food Safety Important?
Food safety is highly important both financially and ethically. The consequences of failing to comply with food safety standards are manifold. In addition to being incredibly costly for companies who must recall their products, overhaul their processes, and manage the public relations crisis, inadequate food safety in manufacturing carries a significant human cost.
The cost of food recalls for companies
Failing to implement an effective food safety protocol can lead to contaminated products entering the food chain. Once the defective product has been discovered, food businesses are subject to dramatic disruptions in their operations as they manage and assume the cost for product recalls.
Food recalls cost companies an average of $10 million USD in direct, immediately measurable costs alone. But the long-term effect that a product recall can have on consumer trust is perhaps even more costly. Some 21 percent of consumers say they would never again purchase anything from manufacturer who had to recall one of their food products.
The human cost of unsafe food
The importance of food safety to modern human life would be difficult to understate. Food safety problems are a leading cause of more than 200 preventable diseases worldwide. Each year, one in ten people will suffer from foodborne illness or injury. An estimated 420,000 people die every year as a result of eating contaminated food, and more than a quarter of these victims are small children.
In addition to the immediate human cost, inadequate food safety comes with a greater ripple effect that impedes socioeconomic progress, especially in the developing world. The World Health Organization states that food safety, nutrition, and food security are inextricably linked. A lack of safe food creates a “vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition” which overburdens public health services, disrupts social and economic progress, and detracts from the quality of life.
Foodborne illnesses are a preventable and underreported public health problem. These illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. They also present a major challenge to certain groups of people. Although anyone can get a foodborne illness, some people are at greater risk. For example:
- Children younger than age 4 have the highest incidence of laboratory-confirmed infections from some foodborne pathogens,including Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella, Shigatoxin-producing Escherichia coli O157, Shigella, and Yersinia.
- People older than age 50 and those with reduced immunity are at greater risk for hospitalizations and death from intestinal pathogens commonly transmitted through foods. Safer food promises healthier and longer lives and less costly health care, as well as a more resilient food industry.