By Joselyn Biira Mwine
Food safety is something we tend to take for granted. When we scan well-stocked supermarket shelves to select food and beverages for our weekly shopping, most of us trust – and expect – that the contents of the packets of foodstuffs on display will match the information on the labels. The provenance of the food is something we rarely question, but is everything we eat and drink really what we think it is? A food related scandal has the potential to shatter consumer confidence in the food industry and turn the spotlight on the whole issue of food safety and food crime, exposing potential fault lines in increasingly complex food industry supply chains, which offer huge potential to criminals to pursue their misdeeds. The consequences of such fraud are estimated to cost legitimate food retailers up to billions of shillings a year. Dressing up food ingredients is common practice worldwide. But the scale of the fraud could make us choke.
Food fraud is committed when food is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer, usually for financial gain. This involves criminal activity that can include food mislabeling, substitution, counterfeiting, misbranding, dilution and adulteration. While food fraud primarily results in cheating customers, it can also lead to significant food safety risks for consumers.
Over the past decades, food supply chains have grown increasingly complex and many of today’s food products repeatedly cross national boundaries, creating more opportunities for criminals to practice food fraud. Consider this. An average cod can travel 10,000 miles before it ends up on a dinner plate. It may be caught in the Bering Sea, then prepared and frozen in a factory in eastern China, taken by cargo ship for processing in Europe or the US, and undergo one final journey before ending up as, say, a fish finger on a plate in Uganda. The farm-to-fork journey has involved a lot of hands, with a lot of opportunity for criminals to step in and exploit weak links in the chain. Along with a growing global population – and as the world becomes ever more complex and interconnected – there is a clear, urgent and compelling need to standardize regulations on an international level. Food fraud has become more sophisticated and harder to detect, presenting regulators with an even bigger challenge.
The scale of the challenge is huge. Supermarkets stock thousands of different food products, and smaller food businesses do not have the resources to “police” their supply chains. With a growing pressure to produce affordable food, there is increasing temptation to cut corners on health, safety and quality controls, which in turn puts more pressure on government and food regulators.
A Certification body like UNBS plays a critical role in efforts to improve the safety of food systems. Food certification promises higher standards and transparency, and an effective weapon in tackling food fraud. The Food Safety Management System (FSMS) certification scheme helps companies to produce safe food and gain the trust of customers. These standards are designed to provide companies in the food industry with an internationally recognized certification.
Of course, any conversation on food safety and food fraud has to include the consumer. The role that consumers play is a big issue. While standards help manufacturers ensure food safety and uses traceability to guarantee the origin of food ingredients, consumers bear some responsibility for safety after purchase if they fail to handle food properly by allowing cross-contamination and poor hygienic practices and ignoring advice from manufacturers.
The responsibility of food safety should not be left entirely to UNBS alone; better consumer education and knowledge are key. One challenge for many consumers is understanding the basics of handling food safely at home – how to store it appropriately, how to avoid cross-contamination, how to cook food or reheat prepared foods properly and how to dispose of waste food safely. They go on to say that the food safety management system helps by ensuring that the food on sale in supermarkets has been produced in ways which minimize the risk of microbial infection and contamination entering the consumer’s kitchen.
It all comes down to trust. Whether you are looking at food from the local or the global perspective, the food business operates on a very high level of trust. We can draw the distinction between intentional adulteration and misrepresentation of foods or food ingredients for economic gain and intentional contamination or adulteration where there is an intent to cause public health harm and/or economic disruption. There are well-recognized approaches that a food business can take to deal with the latter – usually called “food defense”. There are existing provisions of standards that define some very workable processes for example, knowing your suppliers, setting clear specifications, requesting reputable certificates of analysis, etc.
Producing good-quality, nutritious and affordable food in a country of 40 million people is always going to be a huge challenge. Surprisingly enough, the biggest threat to food safety doesn’t come from the criminal fraternity but from unintentional contamination. This can happen when food businesses do not have effective systems in place to prevent biological, physical or chemical contamination and when they do not implement those systems consistently.
So is the farm-to-fork journey any safer? Food crime is now a known risk to companies. UNBS is working more closely with other authorities and consumer groups on food fraud, and there is a bigger push to educate the consumer on food hygiene and improve food labelling in the industry. All of these, plus certification for the industry and national and international Standards can help to mitigate risks. No doubt there may be more scandals in the future. However, we believe that standards should make us all feel more reassured about our weekend supermarket shopping. If properly used, and fully implemented, standards provide the toolkit that a food business at any point along the food chain needs to produce safe food. It incorporates the best in management practices and the latest in food safety systems design, with very strong provisions for internal and external communication as well as an intense focus on both the competence of personnel and the improvement of the system over time.
The writer is the Public Relations Officer at Uganda National Bureau of Standards.