Risk Management Series 1: Managing Food Safety Risks

When it comes to measures and controls to reduce the likelihood of food safety issues, basic principles are still being missed.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die every year from eating contaminated food*.

Are these numbers just the ‘tip of the iceberg’?

What we do know is that reliable surveillance data for food-borne illnesses is simply not available worldwide. It’s a widely held assumption that the numbers are higher, but no one really knows for sure.

Are These Issues New?

“We’re still seeing the same issues we’ve been seeing for the last 25 years. Even though we’ve benefitted from sophisticated science to identify food safety hazards, and well-established regulatory frameworks across much of the world, the situation is not getting better.”

“When it comes to measures and controls at different points along the food chain to reduce the likelihood of food safety problems, there are basic principles that we’re still not getting right!”

“Fundamental food safety risks are always there, irrespective of which market you’re operating in. Safe food is essential to health and wellbeing, but the number of food safety incidents is going up, year on year, which represents a major challenge. And then there’s the associated cost of dealing with those issues, which runs into many billions.”

Why Are Allergen Management Issues on the Increase?

There are several potential causes as to why we continue to see allergen management issues including a failure to conduct adequate due diligence throughout the supply chain.

It’s especially felt by small and medium-sized companies that may not have the management systems and resources of larger players – but even they are not immune.

“We continue to see problems with allergens. Even the most robust processes can’t guarantee 100% that a tragic cross-contamination issue can be avoided, so what more can be done to protect consumers against harm?”

Growing populations, complex supply chains and, particularly, increasing consumer expectations will make the future of food safety even more challenging.

Evaluating Risk Is a Constant

How these risks are managed will depend on the maturity of the market you’re addressing, and constantly changing consumer expectations.

“Food businesses need to evaluate risks on a regular basis. What you thought was a low risk six months ago might now have evolved in terms of priority and urgency.”

“Consumers are driving constant change and developments in their tastes and choices. As a result, food safety risks are evolving all the time, so the key challenge for the food industry today is anticipating and managing this from a proactive standpoint.”

Managing the Unknown

There are particular challenges associated with novel foods, where there is little experience yet of the risks that are associated with them, or in managing them. This is especially true of new plant-based foods.

Added to this is the complexity of evolving regulatory frameworks, so even if a business benefits from advanced food laws in Europe, for instance, there may still be varied interpretation in different countries. The regulatory landscape, country by country, is constantly emerging and changing.

“It’s a highly complex environment, so quality, food safety and regulatory managers must have their finger on the pulse. They must understand what’s going on, conduct horizon scanning to anticipate emerging risks and manage existing risks, putting in place mitigation plans before they become more serious.”

In terms of critical factors, we see value in addressing two key areas: people and data. The priority for food businesses is to attract, manage, engage and upskill food safety professionals.

Bridging the Skills Gap

“We’re getting better at using machines and science to detect food safety issues, while laws, regulations and standards play a vital role too. The key lies in recruiting the right people and creating a robust food safety culture.”

Nowhere are people skills more important than in capturing, analyzing and protecting information.

Harnessing the Power of Data

“We’re collecting more and more data, but we don’t necessarily have enough people with the right skillsets to be able to analyze that data effectively, to maximize the potential insights and benefits it offers.”

Alarmingly, recent food recall statistics in the US, for example, where researchers from Sedgwick found that FDA food recalls resulted in an extraordinary:

  • 7-fold increase in the number of food and beverage units impacted in 2022
  • 417 million units recalled, a 10-year high

We asked the Global Food Safety and Quality Manager of a leading QSR - what’s the key to this?

“The industry needs to get better at sharing data. Food safety should not be competitive! We won’t make a difference to these figures if we’re not putting the right people in place and investing in the right technology. My call to action to the whole industry would be to strive to work together on these challenges. Collaboration is the key.”

What’s the Solution?

  • There are many tools on the market to help business leaders understand, evaluate and assess risk. Whether you’re using your own internal expertise or outsourcing to a third party, keeping risk at the front and centre of every development or change means you have a better chance of mitigating the impact of any deviation.
  • According to our contributors, we can’t underestimate the importance of communication, collaboration and knowledge-sharing.
  • When teams, networks and supply chains all work together for a common aim, that’s the most likely recipe for success.

Contributors to This Article:

  • Matt Taylor, Senior Manager, NSF Food Consulting, North America
  • Katie Glover, Manager Regulatory Affairs and Trading Law, NSF Food Consulting, UK

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