"From Farm to Fork", EUFIC's fact pack on food safety and hygiene, looks at the different stages of the complex system from the farmer to the consumer. In this issue of Food Today, we look at the role of food processing in providing consumers with safe, enjoyable food.
As the World Heath Organisation (WHO) has succinctly put it, food safety is a shared responsibility. Ensuring consumers can enjoy safe quality food is not just the job of the food industry, but depends on the efforts of everybody in the complex chain of food production, processing, transport and retailing and not least consumers themselves.
To guarantee that food reaches the consumer in a healthy and unspoiled condition, it has to go through several processes. One of the reasons why we process food is to eliminate and/or prevent the microbes - present in all foodstuffs - from multiplying and spoiling food and potentially causing disease. Processing also aims to prevent food spoilage by deactivating enzymes and preventing oxidation. Enzymes are natural biological agents which break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. If left uncontrolled, enzymes would continue to break down the food itself. Fats in food have to be prevented from reacting with oxygen in the air which can make them go rancid.
The best known processing methods used to improve food safety are heat treatments such as pasteurisation and sterilisation, where foods are heated to destroy any hamful microbes and enzymes. Processing also includes refrigeration and freezing which slow down enzyme action and stop harmful microbes growing. Drying food products such as pasta and cereals deprives microbes of the water they need to multiply.
Food additives have an important role in food processing. Anti-oxidants prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid, while stabilisers and emulsifiers stop ingredients like oil and water separating and altering the quality of a product.
To ensure that food processing consistently delivers the desired level of food safety and quality, manufacturers use modern quality management systems. Good manufacturing practice guarantees that procedures are followed which deliver consistent quality and safety. Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) focuses on preventing flaws in the manufacturing process itself so that any potential contamination risks are prevented in advance. Food processors also adhere to quality management standards laid down by the International Standards Association (ISO).
But the quality of food products also depends on the quality of raw materials and the quality of transport, storage, and conditions at the point of sale. Ensuring quality therefore involves working with suppliers, such as farmers and wholesalers, transporters and retailers to make sure that their quality assurance procedures are adequate.
Processors brief suppliers on their requirements for raw materials to ensure that ingredients meet their quality standards. Processors often provide technical assistance to transporters, wholesalers and retailers and carry out checks to ensure that factors like temperature and moisture are being controlled and that sell-by dates are being observed.
Packaging plays an important role in ensuring that food reaches the consumer in peak condition. It increases the shelf life of products by acting as a barrier against water vapour, air and microbes while preserving the freshness of products. Packaging also conveys important information such as cooking information nutrition and ingredient or use-by dates which help the consumer store and prepare products safely.
Safety is a Role for Everyone
Product safety cannot be guaranteed by food processors alone. The responsibility for food safety and quality must be shared by everyone in the chain of food production from farmers, food transporters and retailers. At a time when food safety standards have never been higher, it is vital that consumers also play their part in ensuring that the food they consume is safe, by praticing good food hygiene, proper food preparation and safe storage.