During the latter part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty first century, food safety has been a major concern and this has been reflected in the evolution of food safety legislation worldwide. Food distributors and their suppliers must now prove their credentials to satisfy the requirements not only of food safety regulatory bodies but also of food retailers, who seek to mitigate risk arising from uncontrolled food-borne hazards.
Food safety issues regularly make the headlines worldwide. However what does that expression really mean? Food safety is defined as taking all possible control measures to ensure that food is safe. This means that the risk of food contamination should be eliminated or at least reduced to the lowest possible level so that food served or sold to customers is eaten without incurring any risk to their health.
A universal issue
Food safety concerns everyone. Companies have become aware that the topic is of critical importance. The most senior directors now seek to incorporate it as part of their overall strategy to protect their brand. They are increasingly sensitive to food safety issues including contaminated raw materials, hazards introduced during processing and packaging, and hazards induced by food contact with materials.
Manufacturers have good reason to be sensitive. Across the globe there are laws to prevent contamination from any source. In the field of food processing and packaging it is required that food be protected from chemical products that may migrate from the container or the equipment and get to the food product itself.
Awareness is important both at the distributors’ and suppliers’ level. The retail industry across Europe and indeed across the world have set up best practices, administered for the most part through the Global Food Safety Initiative, and in the form of Global Food Safety Standards to be adopted by food manufacturers. These standards require assessment and control of food safety from all potential sources, including raw materials, processing, packaging and labeling.
Labeling is a critical issue. A significant number of product recalls are a result of incorrect labeling, with incorrect allergy advice being one of the greatest causes. European regulations regarding labeling are constantly evolving. They lay out very clearly the requirements concerning clear labeling. However control of labeling, to ensure that food enters the distribution chain with the correct information is down to the food manufacturer.
Suppliers and equipment manufacturers are also concerned
The need to assess and control food safety hazards is extending rapidly now to non-food suppliers. The food processing industry recognizes the risk from this source and demands evidence of compliance that processing and packaging equipment can be used without risk to the HACCP (Hazard Analysis And Critical Control Points) based food safety management system.
Already an increasing number of suppliers within the food chain, right up to and including supermarkets, is searching for equipment manufacturers that can prove that their equipment or materials will not lead to health hazards through contamination or migration. Food processing and packaging equipment manufacturers are not forgotten when it comes to the Global Food Safety Standards, benchmarked by the Global Food Safety Initiative and used by supermarkets to approve their food suppliers.
As just one example, the BRC (british retail Consortium) Global Food Safety Standard requires control of food safety in materials, processing and packaging, and also equipment and environment. More and more food processing companies are looking for a guarantee from their food and non-food suppliers that using their materials will not undermine their HACCP based controls. Equipment and material manufacturers supplying the food industry are beginning to see this as an opportunity to show that the design of their machines supports the principles of food hygiene control based on HACCP. It is becoming something of a competitive advantage for those equipment and material manufacturers that achieve a food safety based certification such as that provided by the HACCP International Certification body.
The HACCP mission
For over 50 years, The World Health Organisation has promoted food safety control through HACCP worldwide and its Codex Alimentarius publication. The principles require an assessment of food safety and security from all the sources, not only for ingredients and food production line operators.
Legislation across the world now requires that food manufacturers implement and maintain a documented HACCP system. The European Food Hygiene Regulations is one example of how this requirement is mandated across a whole continent! The major supermarkets also demand that their suppliers implement and maintain an HACCP system. For example the BRC (British Retail Consortium) Global Food Safety Standard used by retailers to approve suppliers within the food chain, require a food manufacturer to maintain, validate, verify and review an HACCP Plan.
The mission of HACCP, managing food safety, is also applicable to non-food, including packaging and processing equipment. Indeed the principle of HACCP is used by my own organisation, HACCP International, a certification body for equipment and materials, ranging from processing equipment, packaging equipment, chemicals and materials of fabrication such as hygienic wall and floor materials.
Equipment and materials are assessed, following Codex Alimentarius HACCP Principles, for any potential risk to food arising from unhygienic design, design characteristics that may lead to increased risk of food contamination, consequence of error in use or misuse, poor quality user manuals or service manuals, or unsubstantiated food safety based claims. The equipment or material supplier can then present the HACCP International Certificate to the food processor to demonstrate that the article or material is safe for use in a food environment. This in turn supports the HACCP plan implemented by the food processor or manufacturer.
Towards unlimited control
Generally efficient and full control is the only way of reducing the risk of food safety in the food industry. Automation will remove any elements associated with human error, but this does not mean that automated systems can be relied on without correct commissioning and verification – an operator must necessarily check that the quality of automatic control is constantly optimized and effective.
Integrity of packaging and labeling is also the last line of defense: if a food product is contaminated, improperly packaged or labeled, the probability that this food product ends up at supermarkets increases – the product will have entered the food distribution chain already.
A temporary competitive advantage
In the zero-risk race, the developed world, with a history of robust and mature HACCP based controls, may still keep a small window of opportunity and a competitive advantage in with regard to food safety. But for how long? Emerging countries learn and develop very quickly. Some have already tightened their rules regarding food safety, often using European Union Food Hygiene Regulations as a template for the improvements that they make to their own food safety legislation. Within five years, the differences between the two worlds will have disappeared.
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