FOOD SAFETY AND REGULATIONS

Emerging role of technology

Kent L Bradley, Chief Health and Nutrition Officer, Herbalife Nutrition

While drug regulation would be a topic of frequent updates and discussions on this platform, food safety and regulations has come to the fore because of COVID19.The new normal will be introducing a lot of changes in the way people eat out and the food vendors prepare food. All practicing physicians and specialists who are running their own facilities should be updated about these regulations. More so because their customers and patients may not be well versed and may require that information from a credible source. This topic is now getting attention from regulators in various countries. It's noteworthy that while every country will have its own outlook and standards towards food safety and is at a different stage in terms of health-technology, the pandemic situation might bring them all at the same level.

Food and food-related safety has come to the fore because of the current pandemic. Healthcare institutions and hospitals dealing with children and the elderly who are at a much higher risk need to provide more vigilance and scrutiny in the services they deliver. Food hygiene in hospitals1 pose peculiar problems, particularly given the presence of patients who could be more vulnerable to microbiological and nutritional risks. Consumers are curious, confused and worried about food handling and the supply chain. There are a whooping 362K online searches on ‘food safety’ since Jan 2020 with per day mentions rising up to 60K which is 70 per cent higher than the previous yearR1.

This has made governments rethink strategies that involve not just domestic production of food but also exports and imports. For example, in Asia Pacific, countries are focused on modernising their food safety systems2 to ensure the availability of safe and nutritious food for the projected five billion inhabitants in 2050. These procedures vary based on the regulatory framework followed by country. The current pandemic, however, has made it important for having a global standard of food safety; something that needs to be followed by all nations alike.

Use of technology

Despite updates from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) on safety of food during the current pandemic, the topics of food, eateries, packaged food, food production, and delivery supply chain have come under much scrutiny. The reasons are obvious. Myths around spread of diseases through food are many and, in the case of a pandemic, being extra cautious is the obvious reaction by the individuals.

A lot of this paranoia is also leading consumers and food business owners to invest more time to ensure food safety and hygiene measures are well in place. Part of the issue is that contamination of the food supply can occur at various points of the supply chain from the farm to the table3. Each step of the way may introduce risk and thus should be assessed for proper preparation, storage, and handling. Technology can help play a huge role and introduce uniformity of standards, in this process

Multiple technologies already exist in this realm and there are a few which are bringing unprecedented levels of transparency and insight, paving the way for a safer food future. They include blockchain, industrial internet of things (IIoT) and next generation sequencing (NGS). The use of blockchain technology gives organisations the ability to record and secure the validity of a wide variety of data. In the supply chain, this is already being realised as the blockchain is being used to amplify the traceability of products. For instance, Walmart has been working with IBM for over a year on using the blockchain4 to digitise a wide variety of products. Blockchain has been used to document the journey of everything from wine to salmon from source to table.

Another area of promise is the rise of the industrial application of IoT through the widespread adoption of sensor technologies that accurately and consistently capture and communicate data. Advances in networking, storage, and processing have created a mass market for sensors delivering real-time data from across the food supply chain. The net-new data gathered by innovative sensors will be leveraged to build safer food manufacturing plants that will operate more efficiently, monitor for unintended contamination, and protect against food fraud. Each one of these potentialities would strengthen food safety programmes and help brands identify problems more accurately and earlier.

The third technology is NGS-based food tests and software analytics that have the potential to significantly improve the scalability and accessibility of food safety and quality measures. NGS-based tests have very low limits of detection; the increased sensitivity of NGS produces more accurate results along with much higher levels of specificity and resolution in a single unified test. This results in more actionable information, faster and at lower costs. The result of NGS adoption will be bulletproof food safety testing programmes that provide an unprecedented insight into supply chains at a rate and scale that has never been experienced before.

What entails Food Safety?

The internet is the host to a wide variety of opinions without the need for substantiation which can be confusing to the consumer. For experts, physicians and science academicians its critical to understand the different aspects of food safety because in times like these, doctors and physicians are the most credible sources of food, nutrition and health safety information.

Food safety is not limited to just the storage and preparation of food. It starts right from the raw material used and ends with the different aspects of the supply chain which is responsible for delivering the food in the hands of consumers. This gamut of procedures involves:

  • Safety in handling food contents (like nuts, soy and mushrooms) to which few consumers could be allergic to
  • The cooking or preparation of the food
  • Preservation techniques
  • Packaging (with proper labelling)
  • Delivery
  • Storage pre-consumption

Maintaining food safety and adhering to the regulations is a tedious and intricate process. The regulations surrounding food safety are different in each company and provider but, maintaining the movement of food along the food chain is an essential function to which all stakeholders need to comply and contribute. This is also imperative to maintaining trust and consumer confidence in the safety of food that they are consuming.

Role of doctors and physicians

Although there is no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with the current pandemic, it is a virus that can survive5 on surfaces or objects.

To address this concern, the latest guidelines released by WHO includes a recommendation for the food industry to reinforce personal hygiene measures and provide refresher training on food hygiene principles to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces and food packaging materials becoming contaminated6 with the virus from food workers.

While technological advances, digitalisation, novel foods and processing methods provide a wealth of opportunities to simultaneously enhance food safety, and improve nutrition, livelihoods and trade, there are additional challenges on the horizon — myths surrounding food safety in times of a pandemic. One of the most effective means we have today to assuage food safety concerns is simply to educate consumers by providing them with information and help alleviate their concerns.

Healthcare providers (HCPs) can play a significant role in imparting awareness around the following aspects:

  • Busting myths through sharing credible information and encouraging them to use reliable information sources like CDC and WHO
  • Educating their patients and consumers about basic hygiene measures and precautions to take in these times
  • Reinforcing their faith in the regulations and processes by way of mentions about technology implementations in this field.

Food systems are becoming even more complex and interlinked, blurring the lines of regulatory responsibility. Solutions to these potential problems require inter-sectoral and concerted international action. Hence, greater international cooperation is needed to prevent unsafe food from causing ill health and hampering progress towards sustainable development. It also calls for a sustained investment and coordinated, multi-sectoral approaches for regulatory legislation, good manufacturing practices, accredited laboratory capacities, and adequate disease surveillance and food monitoring programs, all of which need to be supported by information technologies, shared information, training and education.

References:

1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6413532_Food_safety_in_hospital_Knowledge_attit udes_and_practices_of_nursing_staff_of_two_hospitals_in_Sicily_Italy
2. http://www.fao.org/3/MV819en/mv819en.pdf
3. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/production-chain.html
4. https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/24/walmart-is-bettingon-the-blockchain-to-improve-food-safety/
5. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/covid-19-andfood-safety-guidance-for-food-businesses
6. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/covid-19-andfood-safety-guidance-for-food-businesses
R1. Source Meltwater: Search results for “Food Safety” and “Covid19”

--Issue 49--

Author Bio

Kent L Bradley

Kent L Bradley has worked in leadership roles in healthcare sector, strategising health related policies and business decisions, he has acted as strategic advisor for multiple health-tech companies. A retired army Colonel, he has Masters Degree in Public Health from University of Minnesota & his medical degree from Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Maryland.

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