Food safety is something that all food manufacturers cannot ignore. All are very conscious of how they appear to their customers in terms of the safe reputation of their products.
The reality is that food safety issues in manufactured foods are rare. This is because we know how to control the safety of foods, certainly from a microbiological viewpoint. The techniques for making food safe are not new and the processes needed are well understood. This is fortunate as if this were not the case, the food manufacturing industry would find difficulty surviving.
Why, then, do we see so many reports in the news media highlighting food safety issues? The problem is consumer behaviour in how they handle food. A classic example appeared in the Dominion Post on 31st Jan 2015 where someone was admitted to Wellington hospital suffering what appears to be botulism after consuming a risotto type product. (www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/65620530/Rice-snack-shuts-down-mans-organs).
The manufacturer was not to blame. It was the consumer’s handling of the product that was the issue. The product had been heated and partially consumed, then left for a period of time before being finally consumed – after the recommended “use-by” date. Even though the unfortunate patient realised the food smelt and tasted wrong, he still went ahead and consumed the product. The end result almost claimed his life.
This is an extreme outcome from consumer disregard for his own wellbeing, but this highlights a common issue where consumers simply do not care enough about proper handling of food. Most of us know what we should do in terms of food handling but the potential problems are often not obvious to us to take food handling seriously enough. This is very similar to the road toll where careless disregard for one’s own safety results from the belief that the chance of a fatal accident is rare.
As food manufacturers this attitude of the public is a real concern for us as a common reaction from the public to any food safety incident is that the food manufacturer is at fault. It appears that this is a common problem with human behaviour – to look elsewhere other than yourself to explain an unfortunate outcome. In recent years we have tied ourselves up in regulation and procedures that are exhaustive and costly, to ensure that we do everything right. This in itself can be a problem as those manufacturing food are focused on completing the paperwork and following the procedures more than thinking about what they are doing. When something unusual happens, this is the time when company failures can result in food safety issues.
So, more regulation and procedures is not the answer. Maybe some reduction in formal procedures would help. Using our road traffic analogy, an example of what can happen when controls are removed and people need to think about what they are doing, occurred in Portishead, a town of 22,000 people in the UK. (www.thecityfix.com/blog/naked-streets-without-traffic-lights-improve-flow-and-safety/). Removing traffic lights from intersections (regulatory control) resulted in fewer accidents and an improvement in road safety, as people took the responsibility upon themselves and took greater care at intersections. I am not supporting the complete removal of regulations in the food industry, but maybe we should ensure that there is scope for those working in the food industry to have a greater awareness of what is happening in the manufacture and distribution of food rather than simply following protocol.
So, what do we do? We need to protect consumers from themselves. There have been some innovative attempts by food manufacturers to generate almost fool-proof products. A good example is raw chicken, sold in a bag that can be roasted without the consumer touching the raw and potentially contaminated meat – a simple solution to a common food safety risk. More of this smart thinking by food manufacturers is needed.
However, the ultimate answer has to be in generating a food safety culture where everyone cares about the food they consume from a safety perspective. There are debates on how best to do this from working with school children to educational campaigns for the general public. It is a worry that some consumers wish to consume products such as raw milk and raw milk products for which there are many examples of food poisoning.
In summary, there is nothing complicated about food safety, but it needs to be taken seriously by the public coupled with some innovative approaches to manufacture foods that minimise the effects of customer abuse.
By Professor Steve Flint, Institute of Food Nutrition and Human Health, Massey University.