The food & drink supply chain: quality and contamination risks
Guest Blog by Food Journalist Paul Gander
In my last entry, I looked at the risks to the food ingredient supply chain from criminal adulteration of (usually relatively high-value) raw materials. In fact, the role of food fraud in downstream threats to quality and safety is minor in comparison with other challenges – despite the high-profile exceptions to this rule.
Those challenges from the upper reaches of the supply chain tend to have more to do with negligence than malice, potentially involving inadvertent contamination with allergens, pathogens or simply poor-quality ingredients.
Naturally, even those manufacturers which take the greatest care in screening and updating their supplier lists can fall prey to these issues. So is there anything else that can be done to reduce risk?
Increasing amounts of information directly relevant to quality monitoring are becoming available from external sources. Some of this comes from third-party quality/safety certification providers such as the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Just one small (but important) example is the BRC’s advice to manufacturers and other supply chain partners that they should check the certification status of supplier sites on its online directory. Talking to BRC packaging expert Joanna Griffiths ahead of the launch of the new issue of the Global Standard for Packaging, she told me that forged certificates of compliance were still a problem among some suppliers.
Third-party certification will provide reassurance with regard to the overall probity of your supplier, but what about specific contamination risks?
There may be nothing new about the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food & Feed (RASFF) when it comes to potential risks from allergens and pathogens, but the number of additional tools for monitoring the global marketplace is increasing and will grow still further.
Take, for example, the widening use of whole genome sequencing (WGS) of pathogens. While some still consider this an unnecessarily elaborate (and costly) route to relatively straightforward data, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is using the technique extensively, and in the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is assessing its wider value.
Head of science delivery at the FSA Alisdair Wotherspoon tells me that WGS and other relevant data is finding its way into the Global Microbial Identifier (GMI) project. This aims to create a shared platform and database ‘fingerprinting’ a broad range of micro-organisms and showing how they are linked.
On the level of chemical contamination, the UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) has been developing the idea of ‘smart surveillance’. If you have a ‘snapshot’ of what is ‘normal’, chemically-speaking, (the theory goes) then you can pick up any divergence from that benchmark. This could in turn automatically trigger a system of ‘traffic light’ warnings.
Wotherspoon makes the point that the key developments with the GMI project, for example, will come in the field of bio-informatics. That is certainly true of the way data is collected, but equally important will be the IT routes by which businesses can access that – and other – data.
No one can eliminate risk from the supply chain altogether, but by accessing and integrating external data, future food manufacturing may be able to travel a long way in that direction.