1. European Food Safety System: a shared responsibility
Today's lifestyles are vastly different from those of the past. The fast pace of modern lifestyles and the increase in single-person households, one-parent families and working women have lead to changes in the food preparation and consumption habits. A positive outcome of this has been rapid advances in food technology, processing and packaging techniques to help ensure the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply as more convenient food. In spite of these advances, contamination of the food supply by either naturally occurring or accidentally introduced contaminants or malpractice does occur.
Ultimately, the quality and safety of food depends on the efforts of everyone involved in the complex chain of agriculture production, processing, transport, food production and consumption. As the EU and the World Health Organisation (WHO) put it succinctly - food safety is a shared responsibility from farm to fork.
Maintaining the quality and safety of food throughout the food chain requires both operating procedures to ensure the wholesomeness of food and monitoring procedures to ensure operations are carried out as intended.
1.1. EU framework and regulations
The EU food safety policy encompasses the whole of the animal and human food chain. It provides extensive legislation and outlines the responsibility of producers and suppliers in helping to ensure a safe quality of the food supply. The EU regulations are amongst the most stringent in the world.
In order to make the area of food regulation more transparent and scientific, there was an overhaul of the EU food safety framework since the late 1990s. In 1997, a new scientific advisory system for the EU was established. Eight new Scientific Committees were appointed in addition to a Scientific Steering Committee. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will be established during 2002. The EFSA will be an independent body that works in close cooperation with various scientific agencies and institutions in EU member states providing independent scientific advice on all matters with a direct or indirect impact on food safety. It will cover all stages of food production and supply, from primary production right through to the supply of food to consumers. The EFSA will also carry out assessments of risks to the food chain and scientific assessment on any matter that may have a direct or indirect effect on the safety of the food supply, including matters relating to animal health, animal welfare and plant health.
1.2. Agriculture and Transport
The quality of raw materials is crucial to ensure the safety and quality of the final product. Therefore, a systematic approach is needed from farm to fork in order to avoid contamination of foodstuffs and to identify potential hazards.
From the farm/trade, agriculture produce is transported to food processing industry. This step of the food chain is covered by legislation on quality standards:
- The European Union's legislation on the preservation of hygiene and safety of food applies to transport and storage.
- The norms of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) contain a chapter on the storage and delivery of food products.
- The Codex Alimentarius established in 1962 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) includes the issues of transport and storage in the overall recommendations for the preservation of food.
To know more about agriculture.
1.3. Food manufacturing
It is the food processing industry responsibility to meet consumer expectations that their products are safe, and meet all legal requirements.
Food processors rely on modern quality management systems to ensure the quality and safety of the products they produce. The three key systems in use are:
- Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).These entail the processing conditions and procedures that have been proven to deliver consistent quality and safety based on long experience.
- Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). While traditional safety assurance programmes focused on identifying problems in the finished product, HACCP, a recent proactive technique, focuses on identifying potential problems and controlling them during the design and the production process itself.
- Quality Assurance Standards.Adherence to standards established by the International Standards Organisation (ISO 9000) and the European Standard (ES 29000) ensures that food processing, catering and other food-related industries conform to prescribed and well-documented procedures. The effectiveness of these programmes is regularly assessed by independent experts.
These quality management systems used by food processors also involve working with the suppliers (individual farmers and raw material wholesalers), transporters, product wholesalers and retailers to ensure quality assurance procedures at each level.
From the manufacturer to the consumer: Protecting Food through packaging
After the product is processed, food packaging ensures that food reaches the consumer in peak condition. Packaging preserves the integrity, safety and quality of food products in transport, wholesale warehouses, and retail stores and in the home. It helps maximise the shelf life of the product while carrying important information on the label. Besides, bar codes on packaging containing the date and the location of manufacture enables processors, transporters and retailers to keep track of products for both inventory control and identification of potential hazards.
1.4. The Consumer's Role in Safety Practices
The consumer is the final element of the food chain. Food that has been perfectly safe at the point of purchase needs to be handled carefully to avoid contamination at home. To ensure that eating remains an enjoyable experience and is not spoiled by the risks of falling ill or the fear, a number of measures can be taken.
Purchase and transport
- Always check the "Use-By" date or "Best before" date marking on packaged foods.
- Do not purchase products marked as "Keep refrigerated", "Keep chilled" or "Keep frozen" that have not been stored under adequate refrigeration.
- ake food that needs refrigeration home quickly and place it in the refrigerator or freezer promptly. Check the condition of frozen products. If thawed, do not refreeze.
- Make sure the packaging on foods is not damaged. Avoid dented and bloated cans, torn or warped packaging and damaged safety seals.
- Avoid contact between raw and cooked foods. This reduces the risk of cross contamination (bacteria passing from one food to another). Store raw meats, poultry and fish near the bottom of the refrigerator and cooked foods on higher shelves. Do not put hot food in the refrigerator, as it will cause the temperature to rise. Store foods wrapped or in covered containers in the refrigerator. Discard foods that have gone mouldy or look, taste or smell bad.
- Store canned foods in a clean, cool dry place.
- Always wash your hands in hot, soapy water before and after handling food. Cover any cuts or sores with waterproof plasters.
- Keep all kitchen surfaces clean by washing with hot soapy water and disinfectant to prevent cross-contamination.
- Wash utensils and boards used in the preparation of foods. A knife used to cut raw foods may have bacteria on it, which can be transferred to other foods. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked foods.
- Wash raw fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating and further preparation.
- Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator and cook it immediately it has thawed.
- Do not leave raw food that is likely to become contaminated or cooked food at room temperature longer than necessary, and never for more than two hours.
- Cool cooked foods as quickly as possible (preferably in large shallow pans) then refrigerate. This slows down the growth of bacteria, which occurs best at temperatures between 10 and 60 degrees Celsius (the "danger zone"). Reheat cooked foods thoroughly to kill any bacteria, which may have developed during storage.
- Play it safe. If you are not sure about a food's safety, throw it out rather than risk foodborne illness.
- Always follow manufacturers recommended instructions.
2. Food Safety Challenges
The potential for food to become contaminated with chemical substances or microorganisms starts from the time it is harvested and continues right through until the time it is eaten. In general, the risks to food safety fall into two broad categories:
- Microbiological contamination (eg: bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites). This category results in most cases in acute symptoms.
- Chemical contaminants, comprising environmental chemicals, veterinary drug residues, heavy metals or other residues unintentionally or accidentally introduced into the food supply during farming, processing, shipping or packing.
Whether a contaminant will pose a health hazard or not depends on many factors including the absorption and toxicity of the substance, the level of the contaminant present in the food, the amount of contaminated food that is consumed and the duration of exposure. Besides, individuals differ in their sensitivity to contaminants and other factors in the diet can have an impact on the contaminant's toxic consequences. A further complicating factor concerning chemical contaminants is that many of the studies on the toxicity of contaminants must, by necessity, be extrapolated from animal studies and whether or not the substances exert the same effects in humans is not always known with absolute certainty.
2.1. Microbiological contamination
The most reported causes of foodborne illnesses are of microbiological origin. Microbes are ubiquitous and can enter the food chain at any point from the agriculture produce to the consumer's kitchen. Quality assurance systems are designed to minimise the risk of microbiological contamination. However, as most of our food is not sterile, if handled improperly contamination may occur.
The table below lists the microorganisms most commonly associated with foodborne illness and examples of foods that are typical vehicles for those illnesses.
|FOODS MOST OFTEN ASSOCIATED WITH THE PROBLEM |
|BACTERIA || |
|Bacillus cereus ||Reheated cooked rice, cooked meats, starchy puddings, vegetables and fish. |
Improper handling after cooking is a common feature of foods causing B. cereus associated foodborne illness
|Clostridium perfringens ||Reheated foods including buffet dishes, cooked meat and poultry, beans, gravy, stews and soups. |
|Clostridium botulinum ||Improperly canned (home preserved) foods such as vegetables, fish, meat and poultry. |
|Escherichia coli (E.coli) ||Salads and raw vegetables, undercooked meat, cheese, unpasteurised milk. |
|Campylobacter jejuni ||Raw milk, poultry |
|Listeria monocytogenes ||Unpasteurised milk and milk products such as soft cheeses, raw meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, paté, smoked meat and fish, coleslaw. |
|Salmonella ||Undercooked poultry, meat, shellfish, salads, eggs and dairy products. |
|Staphylococcus aureus ||Ham, poultry, eggs, ice-cream, cheese, salads, custard and cream-filled pastries and gravies, are the most common sources. Improper handling of food or poor hygiene could help S.aureus spread into food. |
|Vibrio parahaemolyticus and other marine Vibrio ||Raw and undercooked fish and shellfish. |
|PARASITES || |
|Trichinella spiralis ||Undercooked pork or game. |
|Toxoplasma gondii ||Undercooked meat and poultry and raw milk. |
|VIRUSES || |
|Hepatitis A virus ||Shellfish, raw fruits and vegetables can be the uncommon cause of hepatitis A. Hepatitis A can be spread by contaminated food handlers inadvertently transferring the virus to the food they handle. |