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Food incidents: lessons from the past and anticipating the future

14 October 2016  •  Author(s): Andrew Hudson, Head of Food Microbiology, Fera Science Ltd; Miles Thomas, Head of Knowledge Solutions, Fera Science Ltd; Paul Brereton, Co-ordinator for Agri-Food Research, Fera Science Ltd

The ability to anticipate and mitigate emerging risks has always been of extreme interest to all stakeholders in the food supply chain. The Rapid Alert Systems for Food and Feed (RASFF) was created and implemented in European legislation and provides notifications to 28 EU national food safety authorities, the Commission, EFSA, ESA, Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland of food risks soon after they arise and can lead to more timely and co-ordinated action throughout Europe1. Analysis of food incident data by HorizonScan since 2006 shows that food safety risks (microbiological or chemical) comprised the vast majority (90%) of formal notifications while issues around headline-grabbing food fraud accounted for only 6.1%. While most of the food safety risks are well known they are usually difficult to predict. As a result, large amounts of resources are spent in mitigation ‘post incident’ (recalls, investigations, prosecution, medical care) due to the inability to anticipate the risk. A focus of scientists at Fera is how to provide the food industry with better tools to identify these risks before they become incidents.

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The ability to predict the next food incident would be of immense benefit to everyone. Brands would not be compromised, consumers would be protected and criminals put out of business. Unfortunately accurate prediction is not yet possible, but by being very aware of both the history and current state of the food landscape it is possible to make projections and implement risk management actions to head off potential problems in an informed way. We provide some examples of varying notoriety to illustrate this assertion and speculate on some key warning signs of nasty surprises that could occur in the future.

There are several electronic warning systems providing information about food issues as they occur. For example, it is possible to subscribe to the UK FSA and be emailed breaking alerts on food recalls and other topical events. However, to get the full picture (or as full as it gets) it would be necessary to subscribe to dozens of similar sources of information of various reliability and in numerous languages. Staff at Fera have access to HorizonScan which consolidates food alerts from around the world on a daily basis and looks for trends and anomalies as a means of informing on emerging risks. 

It is probably fair to say that most microbiological incidents are rarely entirely bolts from the blue. For example, the number of outbreak reports involving unpasteurised milk and its products are legion; the risk is well known2. Real surprises can occur, as shown by the outbreak of listeriosis linked to contaminated caramel apples in America and Canada3, but they don’t happen often. Flurries of reports can presage a rare contamination issue that has the potential to cause disease or recalls, and tracking reporting patterns can allow the astute food safety manager to head off a potential problem for the company. As an example, in early 2016 there were numerous reports of isolations of Salmonella from pistachio nuts in the USA and consequent recalls. This was flagged in HorizonScan with a warning owing to a seven-fold increase of detections compared to the historical rate (an average of one a year since 2009). Reports started to appear in early February and continued until late March. On the 9th and 10th of March the almost inevitable outbreak of salmonellosis occurred where the vehicle involved was pistachio nuts4 . It seems likely that the initial detections were the result of a planned survey of nuts as the FDA had signalled work on tree nut risks in July 2013. While no indication as to the prevalence of Salmonella in pistachios could be inferred, the number of reports compared to the historic average suggested that the food/hazard combination of Salmonella in pistachios merited attention in terms of due diligence testing to protect brand and consumers alike.

The addition of melamine (used here as a shorthand for melamine and similar molecules) to increase the measurable protein content of milk was a widely publicised issue at the time (2008) due to the large scale of health problems occurring in China where 294,000 children became sick and at least six infants died5. However, with the aid of 20:20 hindsight, could something like this have been foreseen? If melamine had been used to increase the apparent protein concentration in one product, could it reasonably have been predicted that the same fraud might occur to bolster protein contents in other foods whose price is linked to that measurement? It is possible; as there were well-documented cases of disease and deaths in North American dogs the year before that were shown to be caused by the addition of melamine to proteinaceous dog food ingredients originating from China. Looking back further it is possible that similar events had occurred in previous years in other countries, as judged by the patterns of disease, but the connection to melamine was not made. The incidents were enabled, to an extent, by the method used to measure protein as it did not in fact measure protein! Instead the method detected total nitrogen so that the addition of high nitrogen compounds could fool the system. 

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Figure 1: Pattern of reports concerning Sumac since 2004

Given access to data extending back for 15 years it is possible to look at recurrent problems. An example is the adulteration of Sumac with Sudan dyes and other compounds. An examination of the historical reports shows that detections spike (four in 2004; three in 2007; three in 2011 and two in 2015) and fall back to zero (during all other years between 2005 and 2014 – see Figure 1). Therefore, with detections spiking every two to three years, is it possible to conclude that fraudsters wait for the fuss to die down before having another go? The information suggests that businesses need to have constant vigilance in respect of this particular commodity.

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