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FOOD TODAY 11/2000

Safe Foods: Science Comes to the Dinner Table

Food TodayIn the seventies, food safety and hygiene legislation focused on the control of the end product to ensure that all the necessary safety and quality standards were met. However, to guarantee safe products, inspection only at the end of the production cycle was not good enough. This is why the current European legislation incorporates an active quality control system based on prevention throughout the entire food chain.

Case in point: Since 1993 the European food sector is required to implement Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. This technique, based on the simple premise that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," was originally developed in the United States in the sixties, based on work that had been done in the chemical industry. It was then adapted by the food industry to produce food for NASA astronauts. The program was designed not only to meet the strictest quality standards for the finished product, but also to closely monitor all aspects of the production process, ensuring the elimination of as many potential risks as possible in a space environment.

The HACCP system begins with the raw materials, ingredients, and packaging material, continues during processing, distribution and sale and ends during the preparation by a professional cook or the consumer. Foods that are not produced according to the HACCP system cannot be sold on the market. Government authorities are responsible for overseeing the appropriate application of the system by producers, retailers and professional cooks. Producers must provide detailed documentation demonstrating that they have an efficient HACCP plan in place and that this plan is not only applied but functions properly and is suitable to the required level of product safety.

The European Directive 93/43/CE on the hygiene of food, which has been integrated into the legislation of Member States, promulgates the principles of HACCP, principles that will be kept in the new EU legislation. HACCP makes use of a rational, systematic approach that begins with a detailed analysis of the manufacturing procedures to identify all potential hazards. These hazards fall into three categories: microbiological (contamination by pathogenic organisms or their toxins), chemical (mycotoxins, heavy metals, residues from detergents, pesticides, etc.), or the presence of foreign objects (stones, bone chips, fish bones, etc.).

The next step in HACCP is to define "critical control points" (CCPs) and set criteria for their adequate functioning. CCPs are the various steps in the production process that must be controlled to eliminate or reduce the levels of potential hazards to a minimum. For example, controlling the temperature of refrigerated foodstuffs during transportation is a CCP for keeping the growth of certain bacteria (such as Listeria) under control. The HACCP plan also incorporates intervention processes, intended to immediately correct a production problem. This should ensure that no faulty product reaches the consumer.

Producers must not only control their activities, they also must be able to demonstrate that all hazards have been effectively managed. Such management involves the use of monitoring methods at CCPs to ensure that the required control was achieved, and of verification methods that ensure that all elements of the HACCP plan were correctly identified and implemented. Dairy processing plants, for example, must pasteurise the milk at a time and temperature combination that has been proven to kill pathogens (such as Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter), and pasteurisation records have to be kept for control by food inspectors. For fresh products the cold chain has to be maintained from the farm to the kitchen; warehouses and trucks may be required to keep temperature records. Also, consumers should regularly check, and if necessary correct, the temperature of their refrigerators.

It is interesting to note that the scientific advancements resulting from the conquest of space have reached the food industry and the consumer. From the moon to the dinner table-one small step for man, one giant leap for food safety.

Terms used in this article
Quality control
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The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit organisation which communicates science-based information on nutrition and health, food safety and quality, to help consumers to be better informed when choosing a well-balanced, safe and healthful diet.

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