FAO examines safety of ‘new food’ and tech: ‘In a rapidly changing world foresight is more important than ever’

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

What food safety risks could present themselves as we emerge into the bold new future for food? FAO weighs in / Pic: GettyImages-luchschen
What food safety risks could present themselves as we emerge into the bold new future for food? FAO weighs in / Pic: GettyImages-luchschen

Related tags: Food safety

There are ‘exciting opportunities to feed the world’, according to the FAO of the United Nations, which highlights the potential of ‘new foods’ like jellyfish, edible insects and cellular meat. However, the organisation suggests, now is the time to start preparing for any potential safety issues.

A report out this week from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) examines food safety in ‘tomorrow’s world’, looking at how major global drivers like economic growth, changing consumer behaviour and consumption patterns, the growing global population and – of course – climate change will shape future food safety.

“In a rapidly changing world, foresight is more important than ever,”​ FAO scientists said explaining that through this long-term thinking exercise they hope to help policy makers anticipate future food safety concerns, moving from a reactionary response after they materialise.

“We are in an era where technological and scientific innovations are revolutionising the agri-food sector, including the food safety arena. It is important for countries to keep pace with these advances, particularly in a critical area like food safety, and for FAO to provide proactive advice on the application of science and innovation,”​ explained FAO Chief Scientist Ismahane Elouafi.

The report -- Thinking about the future of food safety - A foresight report​ -- maps out some of the most important emerging issues in food and agriculture with a focus on food safety implications. It adopts what the authors describe as a foresight approach based on the idea that the roots of how the future may play out are already present in the form of early signs. “Monitoring these signs through the systematic gathering of intelligence increases the likelihood that policy makers will be better prepared to tackle emerging opportunities and challenges,”​ it was claimed.

The report covered eight broad categories: climate change, new food sources and production systems, the growing number of farms and vegetable gardens in our cities, changing consumer behaviour, the circular economy, microbiome science, technological and scientific innovation, and food fraud.

Contamination risk rising

FAO scientists concluded policy makers should prepare for ‘increased exposure to contaminants’.

Changing weather patterns and temperatures are increasingly being linked to rising food safety risk. Indeed, a 2020 report from FAO​ dug into the topic food safety to detail how climate change is increasing our collective exposure to food safety risks, including foodborne pathogens and parasites, harmful algal blooms, pesticides, mycotoxins and heavy metals. 

​Recent evidence points to a severe impact of climate change on various biological and chemical contaminants in food by altering their virulence, occurrence and distribution,”​ FAO said in this latest research.

“Traditionally cooler zones are becoming warmer and more conducive to agriculture, opening up new habitats for agricultural pests and toxic fungal species. For instance, aflatoxins, which were traditionally considered a problem mainly in some parts of Africa, are now established in the Mediterranean.”

'New food': Jellyfish, algae and insects

Changing consumption patters are also seeing increased acceptance of edible varieties of jellyfish, algae and insects beyond areas of the world where their consumption has formed part of the traditional diet.

Edible jellyfish, for instance, are low in carbohydrates and high in protein content. However they ‘tend to spoil easily’ at ambient temperatures and can ‘serve as vectors of pathogenic bacteria’ that could adversely affect human health.

Likewise, increasing seaweed consumption has a lot going for it – such as nutritional value and sustainability. Here again, FAO flagged an area for food safety ‘concern’: seaweeds’ ability to accumulate high levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.

Interest is also rising in human consumption of edible insects response to growing awareness of the environmental impacts of food production. Certainly, in Europe insects might not be as far from your plate as you think. In the UK, for instance, the edible insect sector recently expressed its expectation that it will receive regulatory approval for house crickets as early as next year​. Meanwhile, EFSA recently gave the novel food nod to meal worms​, which are now awaiting final authorisation from the European Commission. 

Nevertheless, consumption of edible insects is not without its risks. FAO noted: “While they can be a good source of protein, fibre, fatty acids, and micronutrients like iron, zinc, manganese and magnesium, they can harbour foodborne contaminants and can provoke allergic reactions in some people.”

Meat alternatives: plant-based analogues and cultivated meat

Globally, particularly in developed markets like Europe and the US, increasing numbers of consumers are swapping out their meat- and dairy-heavy diets for ones that contain a greater amount of alternative protein sources.

People who are becoming vegetarian or vegan often cite ‘concerns for animal welfare and livestock’s impact on the environment’, FAO noted.

This market pull has resulted in the development of various plant-based alternatives to centre-plate animal protein. According to forecasts from Bloomberg Intellitence, the sector for plant-based foods will make up 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030, as its value rises to more than $162 billion.

But here too, FAO flags food safety risk: “​As plant-based diets expand, more awareness about introducing food safety concerns, such as allergens from foods not commonly consumed before, is needed.”

While cell-based meat – grown in laboratory conditions using animal cells and growth media – is further from market realisation, again FAO said that regulators should be cognisant of potential food safety worries. “Examples of potential concerns include the use of animal-based serum in the culture media, which may introduce both microbiological and chemical contamination,​” the report suggested.

Industry 4.0 and the technological revolution

FAO’s thought project into the world of tomorrow recognised that a ‘veritable technological revolution’ is transforming agri-food systems, helping food producers make more with less.

The Organization pointed to smart packaging to extend shelf life, blockchain for traceability and 3D printing.

​As with all emerging technologies, there are opportunities and challenges,”​ FAO said. “For such technologies to be made available to all, it will be crucial to promote standards and best practices, access to reliable and curated reference databases, communication of lessons learned, and transparency in data sharing across stakeholders.”

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