What do we mean by 'food safety'?

By law (EU Regulation 178/2002), foods produced for animal and human consumption have to be safe, so animal and human health can’t be harmed in any way. But what does safe food mean?

Foods are exposed to a number of safety risks at almost every stage of the supply chain, from primary production (for example, when vegetables are being picked from the field) right up to the moment it reaches your dinner plate. These safety risks can be of various origin and they’re generally classified in one of the following three: physical, chemical or microbiological risks.

Physical risk

Physical risks are presented when a foreign object contaminates a food product, and the risks usually occur within the production cycles. However the level of risk varies. Some physical contaminates are seen as a low safety risks, for example, though unhygienic, a strand of hair found in your food is considered a low risk to your health. However, in some other cases, like a piece of glass found in a canned beverage, will present a very high safety risk in harming you.

Chemical risks

Chemical contaminants are often the most common risks in food safety. They usually occur from improper use of chemicals used in the field and farm, which then end up in the final food product. Pesticides in plants and hormones in animals are some examples. Chemical contaminants have been linked to chronic disease, such as cancer, due to their accumulation in the human body. Toxic chemical compounds produced by certain microorganisms, such as mycotoxins (a poisonous compound produced by certain moulds), are also considered chemical contaminants. One of the challenges that the food industry is facing at the moment is finding appropriate and logical procedures to be able to detect low quantities of such compounds, and to trace new chemicals that are produced to improve the productivity in primary production.

Microbiological risks

Finally, there are the microbiological risks, which are associated with the presence of pathogenic microbes or their toxins in the food you consume. Microorganisms are everywhere and for this reason they can get in contact with food products at any stage of production. Microbial contamination can occur during primary production (eg by using contaminated water to irrigate lettuce) and during processing (eg contamination of a slice of cooked ham from an unclean slicer). In the case of food from an animal source, the animals themselves present a reservoir for food-borne pathogenic microorganisms. An animal’s intestine is the major source of pathogenic bacteria so fecal contamination must be avoided to safeguard human health.

The preference for ready-to-eat products, for which low temperatures are essential for their storage, gives way to more microbiological risks. An excellent example is listeria monocytogenes, a pathogenic bacterium – usually found in food from an animal source such as meat or dairy products but can also be found in vegetables – which has the tolerance and capability to still grow at refrigerated temperature (4°C), unlike many others.

Over the last few decades, the food industry has invested a lot of resources to avoid microbial contaminations and reduce the presence of pathogenic bacteria in final products. Food safety is a very much now a prerequisite, with EU legislations for the first time imposing microbiological limits to protect the consumer which you’ll learn more about later in the Week in ‘Food scandals’.

Are you aware or surprised by the number of risks involved during the production process?

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food