Many of the foods and drinks we consume every day are not as safe as we think. Despite increasingly stringent safety regulations, food fraud, adulterated products, and ingredients containing harmful chemicals or pathogens continue to slip through the global safety net to sicken an estimated 600 million people every year.
Why do these incidents continue to occur? Try three words: demand, globalization, and money. The demand for imported foods and ingredients into the U.S. has more than tripled in the past few years. Imported food now totals over $120 billion dollars per year. Americans’ appetite for foods from around the world is so insatiable it is fueling a gold rush among importers and producers who are casting their supply nets ever wider to meet the growing demand. The result is a global supply chain that is stretched to its very limits.
The story is not new. Fraud, adulteration, and tainted ingredients are as old as civilization itself. The ancient Romans even created a now-famous term to forewarn consumers that they should be cautious about what they buy: caveat emptor. Considering that 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is now imported—including 50 percent of fresh fruit, 20 percent of fresh vegetables, and up to 90 percent of its seafood—government officials, importers, food manufacturers, and consumers would all do well to heed the Roman warning when it comes to food safety.
Inspection: An Enormous Task
Prompted by a series of food-related safety incidents such as the melamine in milk tragedy in China, the U.S. government introduced a number of sweeping laws, including the Food Safety Modernization Act. While such legislation has done much to help protect the U.S. food supply, officials are struggling to move the food safety needle away from a response level to one of proactive prevention.
One reason for that slow slog is the sheer size of the global task. More than 8,000 FDA inspectors need to inspect thousands of food processing and import facilities around the globe. They monitor everything from meat inspections and sanitation to food imports at the border that could pose potential threats to homeland security. Despite the increased regulatory muscle, officials struggle to keep pace with the growing number of food imports. Last year, for example, they inspected over 2,000 foreign food and feed facilities. Still, that represents less than 0.5 percent of the more than 285,000 such facilities around the globe that are registered with the FDA. The result raises the specter for all kinds of health and safety issues that could simply elude detection.
A Helping Hand
In an effort to improve the global safety inspection process, the FDA is now actively working with its global counterparts to devise new ways to ensure food safety. One such initiative is a recent FDA ruling to accredit third party foreign certification bodies. This process will allow approved organizations, including foreign government agencies, to conduct food safety audits and issue certifications to demonstrate that ISO 17021 standards are being followed to prevent harmful produce from entering the U.S. Scheduled for implementation in January of 2018, the new initiative is part of the FDA’s Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP). When placed into operation, VQIP will allow for the expedited FDA review, lab analysis, and importation of foods from importers who achieve and maintain a high level of control over the safety and security of their global supply chains. The initiative is expected to alleviate the backlog of companies wishing to import food products into the U.S and to provide globally sanctioned entities to finally adopt a preventative approach to food security even before goods ever reach American shores.
An International Approach to Food Safety
In the aftermath of the 2013 horsemeat scandal in Europe, investigators found that there have been very few prosecutions over time for food fraud. Chief investigator Chris Elliott, director of food safety and microbiology at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland, went so far as to say that there continues to be a “huge incentive for the criminal to pursue food crime.” Globalization, it seems, has its seamier side.
To turn the tide against unsafe food and food fraud, the EU is doing more than just enforcement. Member states recently agreed to launch four global initiatives to address the nagging issues of hunger, malnutrition, education, and the lack of proper agricultural funding in some 45 countries around the world in an effort to confront the root causes of dangerous food and fraud.
Meanwhile, the UN and Global Food Safety Initiative also recently agreed to actively collaborate on building “a roadmap for scaling up” food safety and agricultural programs for local food enterprises in a number of key regions in the global food supply network, including China, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
The Power of Science
When all is said and done, food safety is about effective risk management. Yes, the task is daunting. Even the simplest of today’s food products often contain dozens of ingredients sourced from around the world. Nations, companies, and importers all along the global food supply chain are increasingly turning to science for answers in detecting risks to human and animal health. For example, PerkinElmer’s Perten and Delta Instruments solutions focus specifically on the agricultural and dairy industries. And PerkinElmer’s NexION 350 Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, Spectrum Two Mid Infrared Spectrometer, and Altus Liquid Chromatography system are additional examples of solutions that can help identify known and unknown ingredients and adulterants so that scientists, food suppliers, and the global farming community can rapidly and easily detect toxins, heavy metals, and pesticides in the things we eat and drink every day.
Dr. Packer is senior manager of food safety for PerkinElmer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org