This year’s theme for World Food Safety Day – ‘Safer food, better health’, underlines the need for continuous efforts toward keeping food safe that is accessible to people from all walks of life. The theme emphasizes the golden rule of “Safety First”, which has a direct connection to ensuring food safety and security that aids in ensuring health and wellness but also influences a nation’s economic prosperity and sustainable development. It recognizes the growing concerns about food-borne illness and draws attention to the need for sustained action to detect and manage food-borne risks and calls for a more pre-emptive approach to ensure food security for all. Continuous monitoring for food safety hazards and food-borne diseases is one of the important ways to guarantee food security as it can reduce spoilage and losses during supply chain transit and decrease the incidence of food-borne diseases.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a food-borne disease (FBD) outbreak as “two or more illnesses/diseases caused by the same microorganism such as virus, fungi, or bacteria, which occurs after consumption of the same food.” These outbreaks often affect populations of all ages while placing a significant economic burden on the government and industry as it results in product recalls and the need for significant source tracing. Federal agencies across the globe have laid down policies and guidelines for ensuring food safety throughout the supply chain. However, statistics still show that food-borne illness outbreaks are an ongoing concern. WHO highlights that food-borne diseases affect at least 1 in 10 people worldwide. The US FDA reported 585 food recalls in 2019, 495 in 2020, and 427 in 2021. The CDC and Singapore Food Agency (SFA) reports have resulted in product recalls ranging from onions to drinking water due to pathogenic contamination. Africa and Southeast Asia have the highest food-borne disease burden, with around 150 to 200 million cases accounted for annually.
These incidences show the global nature of food safety risks and the need for preventive action to ensure safe food that can meet the required nutritional demands of all age groups, leading to a healthier population. A key aspect of ensuring food safety is to continuously track and monitor potential contamination routes throughout the value chain and devise preventive strategies. Existing techniques and tools for contaminant tracking and detection are often time-consuming and are not widely adopted globally due to a lack of infrastructure, cost, availability, or awareness. This poses a problem when food products are one of the most exported/imported commodities. Technological developments in contaminant indicating materials, bio- and nano-sensors, imaging techniques, and molecular assays can overcome the challenges of existing techniques. The global transition to the digitalization era has led to the adoption of IoT, AI, and data analysis tools for predicting possible contamination and facilitating timely action. The development of miniaturized, hand-held, and remote monitoring devices for monitoring and detecting microbes, allergens, and other contaminants can ensure food safety.
Convergence of digital technologies with analytical and diagnostic tools and sensors can ensure rapid detection through real-time monitoring and efficient prediction, while the integration of spectral techniques and imaging tools, such as hyperspectral imaging or Terahertz sensing can improve physical and microbial contaminant detection. These technologies can provide quantitative and qualitative detection and be adopted by all stakeholders, including food producers, manufacturing and processing, and retail units for better food safety management.
There is a need for multisectoral collaboration to design, implement, educate and follow up on food safety programs for a healthier today and tomorrow. At present, despite the presence of international food safety standards, country-specific and regional standards and guidelines often take precedence. While these ensure the safety of imported and locally sold food products, it can make global trade and exports a laborious undertaking. A global legal framework with support measures for all stakeholders in the agriculture and food value chain can help in establishing global food safety systems that comply with international safety standards. It can also create a sustainable food production and transport system for providing better access to safer and healthier foods to end-consumers across geographies. However, this is not an easy task, and a collaborative approach between policymakers, industries, and consumers across nations and geographies is needed to ensure that current food chains are transformed sustainably to provide food safety and security for all to pave the way for a healthier tomorrow.
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