2020 saw a 13% increase in the number of food recalls in Europe versus, according to data from the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed. A total of 1168 food recalls were reported in the RASFF system.
Nuts were the most recalled product, followed by cereals and bakery products, meat and poultry products, fruit and veg and dietetic supplements rounding out the top five.
Recalls were most frequently promoted by the detection of toxins and other unauthorised substances. Pathogens, in particular salmonella, were another common cause of food safety issues.
Food recalls can be costly and inflict serious reputational damage on brands. But the consequences can be more serious still for the people who get caught up in food safety scares.
‘Unsafe food’ contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is linked to 200 diseases, from diarrhoea to cancers, the World Health Organization notes. An estimated 600m people – one in ten of us – are sickened by contaminated food, which results in 420,000 deaths a year.
“Most worrying to note is the trend for a continued increase in the number of food safety incidents recorded by Global Food Safety Initiative, with figures for non-compliance rocketing in 2020, by around 275% when compared with 2017,” noted Tom Russell, who is MD of thermal processing speciality provider The Food Incubator.
“Despite years of innovative technical advances relating to the required protocol to establish a safe food product, news of food safety breaches and outbreaks of serious unsafe food related health conditions continue to hit the headlines, causing widespread disruption, in addition to accounting for totally unnecessary fatalities.”
Food safety breaches ‘not getting resolved quickly enough’
Russell suggested that food safety issues can be particularly problematic for small businesses and start-up brands.
“Of the UK’s 10,990 food and drink manufacturing businesses, 97% are classed as SMEs in information collated by the Food & Drink Federation and in 2020 up to the end of June 2021, the number of new food and drink start-ups launched in the UK had risen by 47%. These statistics evidencing the significance of smaller to medium sized organisations in the sector – companies which are less likely to have the expertise, experience, and resource of the larger food manufacturing players - combined with the number of fledging businesses entering the industry – underpins the clear need to ensure the effective communication of food safety requirements,” Russell suggested.
The food business expert reflected that the ‘COVID effect’ has had a ‘profound impact’ both on the number of new food and drink brands being launched and the importance consumers place on food safety.
“The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the health and wellbeing of the nation and, the significant role played by access to sound nutrition,” Russell observed. “Months of lockdown provided the time to cook up new food-based business ideas, driven by the desire to no longer be restricted by the constraints of corporate culture. And with sound nutrition being widely acknowledged as such a pivotal factor in maintaining health and wellbeing, there is unlikely to be a let-up any time soon,” he predicted.
The need to boost awareness and training
Complexity is a challenge to maintaining high food safety standards. Russell said that the rising number of food safety scares has been ‘compounded’ by a ‘lack of auditors entering the profession’ at a time when more companies requite accreditation for ‘increasingly complex and complicated’ food processing systems and ‘more and varied’ auditing standards.
“Sadly, it appears that whilst the level of knowledge on critical food safety issues has increased, the application of that knowledge has not necessarily followed suit. Or maybe not enough is being done to ensure newcomers to the industry fully understand the requirements?” he pondered. “Has the rise in small and medium sized food and drink start-ups in the UK highlighted the need for more to be done to resolve the issue?”
The solution to this challenge, Russell believes, is leveraging industry knowledge and experience. “The solution must surely be access to highly experienced personnel who are able to help navigate businesses to achieve food safety compliance by providing clear, concise guidance, in plain English at the outset of the manufacturing journey,” he suggested.
Sharing this know-how through training efforts will also be critical. “Once the preferred systems have been identified to deliver enhanced shelf life and ultimately food safety, those in the business who will be responsible for using the relevant equipment (for example thermal processing equipment) must also be trained to appreciate the myriad factors influencing the desired safety outcomes.
“And of course, those auditors that are involved in assessing a company’s ability to deliver safer processes intended to extend shelf life must also be trained to enable them to make accurate and informed judgements.”
If these issues go unchecked in the UK, Russell warned of negative consequences for consumers, business and the economy at large.
“Unless the above issues are addressed, given the surge in interest in food and drink start-ups, we are at risk of seeing further increases in the number of food safety incidents. Which would represent bad news for the industry and the economy, as well as damaging the UK’s enviable track record for entrepreneurial success.”