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Food Safety

Food safety is the scientific discipline describing the handling, preparation and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness.
Male chemist holding burger in lab
© QUB

Food is a basic human right necessary for optimal health and wellbeing. It is important that food is safe, that is, it is free from contaminants and will not cause illness or harm.

Food Borne Illnesses

The World Health Organisation estimates that 600 million people across the world fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 people die every year. The majority of these cases involve gastrointestinal issues, though they can also produce neurological, gynaecological and immunological symptoms. As a result, foodborne illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. Food contamination can also affect the economy and society, undermining food exports, tourism, livelihoods of food handlers and economic growth, both in developed and developing countries.

Food Safety

Food safety is the scientific discipline describing the handling, preparation and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness. Food can become contaminated in a number of ways across the entire food chain, from farm to fork. There are four main types of contamination: microbiological, chemical, physical and allergenic.

A food contaminant is defined as:

Any substance not intentionally added to food, which is present in such food as a result of the production (including operations carried out in crop husbandry, animal husbandry and veterinary medicine), manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packing, packaging, transport or holding of such food or as a result of environmental contamination. (Codex Alimentarius).
  • Biological Contaminants

Biological hazards are organisms or substances produced by organisms that pose a threat to human health. Examples include salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and Escherichia coli.

  • Chemical Contaminants

A chemical hazard is any chemical agent that has the potential to cause illness or injury. Chemical hazards include acrylamide, arsenic in rice, bisphenol-A (BPA), dioxins and heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium.

  • Physical Contaminants

A physical hazard is any extraneous object or foreign matter in a food item which may cause illness or injury to a person consuming the product. Examples include: bone or bone chips, glass, wood, faeces, plastic, sewage, waste, sand, gravel, soil, packaging, metal or any foreign material not normally present in food products.

Allergenic Contaminants

Allergenic contamination occurs when a food that causes an allergic reaction comes into contact with another food. The 14 main allergens are: Celery; Cereals containing gluten – including wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan), rye, barley and oats; Crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs and lobsters; Eggs; Fish; Lupin; Milk; Molluscs – such as mussels and oysters; Mustard; Tree nuts – including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts; Peanuts; Sesame seeds; Soybeans; and Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million).

Control of Contaminants

One of the key priorities of the European Union (EU) is to ensure the health of humans, animals, and plants at every step of the food system, i.e. from farm to fork. This goal is pursued by preventing food contamination and promoting food hygiene, animal health and welfare.

The safety of our food is a shared responsibility. The food industry, research, government and consumers all have a role to play in helping to ensure the integrity of our food chain. In particular, the following control measures are in place to ensure the safety of our food:

  • Food policy, legislation and regulations
  • Research and evidence based decision making
  • Monitoring and enforcement
  • Analytical Methods and procedures
  • Consumer education

Food is governed by a complexity of laws and regulations which set out the government’s requirements to be met by food chain operators to ensure the food is safe and of adequate quality.

Please share your thoughts on the food system and food safety in the comments section below:

  • Are you confident the food you purchase is safe?
  • Have you ever had a foodborne illness?
  • Do you have an concerns? If so, what are they?
© QUB
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