Food Safety, head shot of authors

SWALLOWING TRUST and GLOBAL FOOD SAFETY

Surely you don’t expect me to swallow that? In some parts of the world this is a polite way of saying a statement or data is considered untrustworthy and you do not accept it. Unfortunately, we cannot say that about the safety of some of the food we swallow. Among the many reasons is we swallow trust that the food is safe after it has traveled the sometimes long journey from the farm and the sea through food processors and manufacturers, food delivery and food services until it arrives on our plates. This long food chain can sometimes wander through many countries. Some of those countries may have minimal food safety controls. So, we swallow food trusting that everybody along the food chain got food safety right!

We need correct answers to many questions before we can trust the food we swallow. These include: were Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) applied on the farm? Were Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Hygiene Practices (GHP), Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) used in the processing and distribution of the food? Did supermarkets and restaurants have proper hygiene and storage facilities? Finally, do you and I have sufficient food safety knowledge to store and prepare the food safely? It is sad, and sometimes deadly, if food comes safely through the long global food chain but our lack of knowledge makes the food unsafe in our kitchens.

Overlying the safety of the long global food chain are the regional, national, and local food safety regulatory agencies. Among the questions are: Is the appropriate agency doing an adequate food safety control in every country? Does their food inspection service do an adequate job in inspecting domestic and imported foods? Are food safety laws up to date and applied correctly?     

Numbers can speak louder than words sometimes. The numbers below shout out the damage caused by unsafe food. The World Health Organization (WHO) states: Over 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances such as heavy metals. This growing public health problem causes considerable socioeconomic impact through strains on health-care systems, lost productivity, and harming tourism and trade. These diseases contribute significantly to the global burden of disease and mortality.

Each year an estimated 600 million people in the world are ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 people will die. In the United States each year about 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die (FDA)   If you never experienced a foodborne illness you are among the lucky people.

We chose the title ‘Swallowing Trust’ for this website because both words are crucial in all aspects of food safety. The decision to swallow the food is made knowingly, or unknowingly, in trusting that the food is safe. All the people in the distressing numbers above probably swallowed their food trusting it was safe.

Medical journals tell us we swallow between 600 and 2,000 times each day. Some of the swallowing is our own saliva, but most of the swallows are the food and beverages of our choice. Did you know that the average adult American eats almost a ton of food each year? Swallowing is vital for our survival. Some of the foods and food ingredients we swallow probably changes each year. Why? About 20,000 new food and beverage products are introduced each year to the US food market, according to the USDA  The highest number of new products are beverages, followed by snacks, bakery foods, candy and gum, sauces, and seasonings. The list has 11 more categories.

Some of the ingredients in our food come from countries around the world. One national food safety agency shows a pizza and its ingredients — dough, yeast, salt, sugar, tomato paste, herbs and the toppings such as pepperoni, different vegetables, cheese and other ingredients. The surprise to most pizza eaters is the ingredients could have come from up to 60 countries listed on the picture below.

You buy this pizza today and weeks later you buy the same pizza. Yes, the manufacturer, the type of pizza and the ingredients listed on the package are the same in both pizzas. But the manufacturer of one or more ingredients in the pizza may be different and from a different country. This can happen because profit margins are small in the food industry. So, to keep costs low the manufacturer of our pizza practices ‘least-cost formulation.’ So, we may not be eating the exact same pizza on both occasions. Some of the ingredients in our second pizza may be from ingredient manufacturers in countries with poor, or non-existent, controls on the safety of food. Or, the manufacturer ignores, or applies inappropriately, food safety regulations.

Here is another question for you. Can you recall all foods and beverages you swallowed yesterday? When you have your list completed can you then add the weight of each food and the volume of each beverage you swallowed? Most people in the world cannot do this accurately. In summary, most of us have a lot to learn about what food and beverages we swallow every day. Hopefully, this website will be an active participant in that important learning.

Trust is a word used increasingly in food safety. Let us spend a little time on this important word. The book Trust. A Very Short Introduction has a good general description of ‘trust’ that can be applied to food safety. Trust is at the center of a whole web of concepts: reliability, predictability, expectation, cooperation, goodwill, and on the dark side – distrust, insincerity, conspiracy, betrayal and incompetence. Take a moment to think of how each of these words might influence your trust or distrust in the safety of your food.

The numbers below indicate the size and complexity of regulating the safety of the food supply in which we place our trust. The FDA regulates about 77 percent of the U.S. food supply. This includes everything we eat except for meat, poultry and some egg products which are regulated by USDA. FDA regulations cover about 35,000 produce farms, 300,000 restaurant chain establishments, and 10,500 vending machine operators. Over 80,000 food facilities for humans in the USA, and nearly 109,000 similar facilities overseas, are registered with the FDA. Only about 2 percent of the food imported into the USA is inspected by the FDA. We will examine the implications of these numbers in our book. For now, these numbers emphasize the enormous job in ensuring that our food is safe.

See how your level of trust compares with the following numbers on food safety in recent surveys. Pesticides, antibiotics, and additives troubled 70 percent of US respondents. Pathogenic microorganisms such as Salmonella and Listeria concerned 66 percent, and 61 percent were worried about food fraud. A survey in 2018 found that only 33 percent of U.S. consumers trust the food system.

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll (2019) surveyed 150,000 people in 142 countries on their reaction to seven global risks. The safety of food and drink was one of the risks surveyed. Seventeen percent of people — equivalent to 1 billion people worldwide — said they, or someone they personally know, suffered serious harm in the past two years from the food they ate. Fourteen percent (roughly 823 million people) reported serious harm from the water they drink. 

 The EIT Food Trust Report (2020)    surveyed 19,800 consumers across 18 European countries. The most trusted were Farmers (67%), Retailers (53%), Authorities (47%), Manufacturers (46%). All of the numbers above emphasize that much work must be done by both the producers and the consumers of food to increase trust in its safety. This Blog is open to productive decisions to move the numbers above in a positive direction.

There is growing awareness by national regulatory agencies of the importance of trust in the safety of the food supply. A good example comes from the Chief Executive, Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom — …. we believe everyone should be able to trust the food they eat. With an evidence-based, scientific approach, we work to strike the right balance between protection from risk, consumer choice, and support for business growth and innovation. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) publication EFSA Strategy 2020 uses the subtitles Trusted science for safe food and Protecting consumers’ health with independent scientific advice on the food chain. This is yet another example of the words ‘trust’ and ‘scientific’ being used more frequently when food safety in the entire food chain is discussed.

Food Safety is about the who, what, when, and why? What is behind the story or action being told or asked for? How is it relevant to the person on the ground and doing the work? Are the technologies and regulations logical and does it apply to the situation and people using it? I want to be the new kid on the block that is always asking how come and why? What is the relevancy of the numbers and regulations? What does it mean for us and for the producers of our food? We look forward to your views on food safety issues and on what could have been done differently to make the food you consume safe for you and your family. And what can you do to help ensure that the food you set in front of your family is safe.

Disclaimer:   Both of us were never employed, or consulted, on food safety issues with any of the commercial components of the food chain. We have no vested interest or conflicts of interests in any of the information on this website. We have worked in universities, business and consulted for international agencies (WHO, etc.), government agencies (US Agency for International Development (USAID), Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (FAS/USDA), and non-profit organizations funding food safety issues. We have travelled and eaten good food in over 100 countries while doing this work. These travels gave us many stories we can tell about food safety. We hope these stories will give ‘life’ to the statistics and numbers we discuss. We look forward to seeing stories, information, and statistics on your experiences with food safety issues.

Welcome to this collective learning experience on global food safety.  Contact us to work together.

If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food  (FAO)

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