Food contamination risks: Old is not new

By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

- Last updated on GMT

Despite the laws and technology aiming to prevent it, food contamination and safety risks remain a serious issue. Image Source: Tim Platt/Getty Images
Despite the laws and technology aiming to prevent it, food contamination and safety risks remain a serious issue. Image Source: Tim Platt/Getty Images

Related tags Eu Food safety

Despite laws, technology and more information, food contamination and safety risks remain, prompting calls for an integrated and collaborative approach and strong, well-funded regulatory governance.

“Food safety in Europe is currently at a high level,” ​Ine van der Fels-Klerx, Professor of Food Safety Economics at Wageningen University, and who is also part of the European Food Information Council’s (EUFIC) HOLiFOOD project​, told FoodNavigator.

The introduction of the General Food Law (EC/178/2002) ​in early 2000 and all related rules and measures have helped to continuously improve food safety in recent decades. Despite the implementation of the overarching food legislation, food fraud is an ongoing issue in the European sector.

“Food contamination, some related to fraudulent practices, some related to industrial chemistry, some purely accidental, remains an international problem,”Deborah Blum​, Director of Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Poison Squad, told FoodNavigator, describing the European food contamination landscape today.

Evolving practices to end food contamination

“The field of toxicology has become more sophisticated, enabling us to recognise chemical risks at a very low dose level,” ​Blum detailed. Some of the industry’s safety standards set at the part per million or even part per billion level are based on very good science. “At the same time, our ability to detect at such low levels has increased exponentially,” ​added Blum. 

As a result, consumers are much better at identifying hazardous or fraudulent materials in food and drinks. The challenge, however, is not so much gaining further knowledge to know what to do but instead, the willingness to act accordingly and to invest in enough equipment and enough people to protect ourselves.

“The EU has so far been vigilant in this regard compared to many other regions of the world,” ​added Blum. Food and drink recalls went up​ in 2023. Among the causes were bacterial and mould contamination and pesticides. “That pattern suggests that manufacturing practices could be stricter, especially regarding hygienic standards, but it also says that regulators are paying attention,”​ added Blum.

Maintaining food safety

A crucial challenge in today’s industry is keeping food safety at a continuously high level amid “the changing conditions in our food system and its environments”​, van der Fels-Klerx said.

Movements towards circular food systems, climate change, the introduction of alternative proteins, and other drivers, such as geopolitical changes, all influence the prevalence of food contaminants in the sector. 

In Blum’s conversations with both regulators and food manufacturers, she noted “there’s concern about a rise in fraudulent practices​”. Olive oil is an obvious ​example, Blum detailed, as are honey and syrup.

Honey contamination swept through the European food fraud analysis in April 2023, FoodNavigator reported​. After testing their content, the European Commission (EC) found that almost half (46%) of the honey samples contained sugar syrups, a move thought to enable producers to reap additional financial rewards.

“They are both a reminder that, as ever, what is old is new,”​ Blum shared. “This kind of fakery goes way back,” ​added Blum. Adulteration itself is old. Frederick Accum’s book on the adulteration of food was published in 1820 in London. “So it’s important to remember that we’re not done getting this right,” ​Blum continued.

“We have solid laws on the books and smart science on our side,” ​added Blum. Yet that’s not to say these could not be made smarter. The European sector should, therefore, continue to invest in understanding food contamination via laws and science. 

“We should do even more to understand what is risky and what is not and communicate that,”​ added Blum. “By we, I mean government agencies, as much and as clearly as possible,”​ said Blum. “If one of the challenges is needing consumers to be informed, then let’s damn inform them,”​ Blum detailed.

Past lessons to inform food safety future

The food sector can look at the changing regulatory, political and consumer landscape in recent decades to understand how it can best evolve to satisfy the needs of consumers and the planet.

Overall, the sector needs to take “a more proactive and anticipating approach in the identification of food safety risks”,​ van der Fels-Klerx said. To achieve this, the industry needs to adopt and embrace an integrated and collaborative approach, bringing together stakeholders, disciplines and integrated methods and tools.

“The HOLiFOOD project contributes to this as it aims to develop an emerging risk identification system taking a holistic view of our food system,”​ added van der Fels-Klerx. The four-year project, which started in 2022, strives to enhance Europe’s integrated food safety risk analysis (RA) framework to support the early detection of food risks throughout the food chain. In doing so, it aims to create a safe and sustainable food system.

“Strong regulatory agencies, well funded enough to conduct testing and inspections and act accordingly, are our best defences against this,” ​Blum said. “On this front, the EU is way ahead of the US in taking a stricter approach to regulating industrial additives, creating much stronger precautionary guidelines,”​ Blum added.

While Blum details her admiration for this action amounting to “some impressive protection of consumers”,​ it is not necessarily sufficient to end food contamination. “Is it enough?” ​Blum asks. “Not always, or contaminates and fraudulent ingredients wouldn’t slip through,”​ Blum added before continuing, “but we’re a lot better off than we used to be”.

Related topics Food safety Food Safety & Quality

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