IN May 2011, the deadliest Escherichia Coli (E.Coli) outbreak in recorded history claimed its first victim, an 83-year-old woman in Germany. Just two months later, nearly 1,000 people have been diagnosed with haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening gastrointestinal infection caused by the virus. In addition, there were people confirmed as infected with E.Coli in other European countries, the US and Canada.
Irrespective of where the origin lies, the outbreak and subsequent confusion has once again raised serious questions about the scale and fragility of the global supply chain, as well as the safety of organic farming practices. So what can food producers in Asia learn from the outbreak?
PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE
Reacting after the onset of a food scare is less effective than preventing it in the first place. Prevention is best achieved when food safety and quality are considered strategic objectives - once which improve financial performance. This approach, for example, helps employees of all organizational levels understand why their actions are important and, in doing so, creates a culture of best practice.
STRINGENT STANDARDS FOR ORGANIC & NON-ORGANIC
Organic food producers require the same stringent standards for growing, harvesting, distributing and storing food as non-organic producers. Both, for example, require certification to food safety standards, such as GLOBALGAP HACCP, SQF and GMP, and conduct audits to actively document and verify management practices, seedling sources and other inputs.
This approach improves traceability and adds value to products by assuring consumers that they have been properly grown and harvested.
A rigorous and effective ‘farm-to-fork’ approach to food safety is imperative. To achieve this, producers should follow the steps outlined below:
A holistic approach to food safety begins at the farm level with seed testing, tests pertaining to animal feed, as well as soil condition. This should then be supplemented with auditing/certification and training and the implementation of good cultural practices and training of staff.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) testing has become a necessity in light of legislation imposed in the European Union, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and in an increasing number of other counties. They have established labeling laws for approved bioengineered crops and prohibited the import of unapproved varieties.
In the second stage, tests, audits/certification and training must be carried out at the manufacturing for processing level. During this stage, tests involve nutritional labeling, studies pertaining to the shelf life of the foodstuff and water analysis. The best solution is to build food safety and quality into the production and manufacturing processes. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept is a good basic instrument for the food processor to identify evaluate and control risks to food safety step-by-step.
The approach has worked well for a number of years. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that between 2003 and 2006 its implementation led to a steady decline in the incidence of E.Coli levels in raw ground beef.
Distribution & RetailAs a result, major US food processors and food service companies now require their suppliers to implement HACCP and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and/or good agricultural practices (GAP).
Finally, testing, auditing/certification and training should also be undertaken at the distribution and retail stage. Checks, for example, should be conducted on the packaging, containers and storage facility, supplemented with hygiene and vendor assessment audits.
The E.Coli outbreak in Europe underpins the urgent requirement for improved safety and accountability in the food industry. It is important for food producers in Asia to understand and respond to the lessons it provides.
In order to describe the particular requirements of food safety more precisely and create an umbrella standard for all participants in the food production chain, ISO22000: Management Systems for Food Safety – Requirements for Organizations in the Food Production Chain was developed in 2005. It is a general derivative of ISO 9000.
This standard integrates elements like interactive communication, system management prerequisite programs and HACCP principles into food safety.
Like all comprehensive food industry certification standards, it is based on a comprehensive HACCP concept in accordance with the Codex Alimentarius.
The Standard requires all hazards that may occur in the food chain, including hazards that may be associated with the type of process and facilities used, to be identified and assessed.
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is a systematic preventive approach to food safety and pharmaceutical safety that addresses physical, chemical, and biological hazards as a means of prevention rather than finished product inspection.
Originally developed as a voluntary system, it has now become mandatory for each food company to implement HACCP pursuant to an EU directive on food hygiene.
It is used in the food industry to identify potential food safety hazards, so that key actions, known as critical control points (CCPs) can be taken to reduce or eliminate the risk of the hazards being realized.
It is based on seven principles and is used in all stages of food production and preparation processes including packaging, distribution, etc. The extent of the HACCP concept depends on the type, activity and size of the company.
In 1998, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) developed and introduced the BRC Technical Standard and Protocol for companies supplying retailer branded food products.
It addresses all companies in the food product chain – regardless of their size and complexity – who want to import food products internationally. The contents of the BRC food safety standard closely resemble the contents of the IFS. It is currently used by suppliers in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Far East, North and South America and Australasia.
The International Food Standard (IFS) for the food industry serves as an admission ticket to the retail trade in German and France and partially to some other neighboring countries.
The IFS builds on ISO 9001, and implements additional legislative requirements, the principles of good practice, the HACCP risk analysis and refers as well to EU-legislation concerning the handling of allergens and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The goals of the IFS are the creation of a single assessment basis for all producers of retail brands, universal formulation and conduct of the audits, mutual recognition of the audits and a high degree of transparency throughout the supply chain. The service is available for trade, food producers and auditing organizations.
The SQF (Safe Quality Food) Program is designed to meet the needs of buyers and suppliers worldwide. The program provides independent certification that a supplier food safety and quality management system complies with international and domestic food safety regulations.
This enables suppliers to assure their customers that food has been produced, processed, prepared and handled according to the highest possible standards, SQF offers two different standards, or ‘codes’ – SQF 1000 for primary producers (farms) and SQF 2000 for manufacturers (processing plants).
The codes recognize that risk management can be applied to all products, but not all processes lend themselves to a complete HACCP system. Therefore, SQF 1000 is based on the principles of HACCP, whereas the SQF 2000 Code is a complete HACCP system.
Also, within each code there are three levels – fundamental food safety, HACCP-based food safety plans, and comprehensive food safety and quality management systems. This allows every supplier, from the smallest farmer to the largest manufacturer, to be eligible for SQF certification.
The standard has established itself as a key reference for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in the global marketplace, by translating consumer requirements into agricultural production.
It is a pre-farm-gate standard, which means that the certificate covers the process of the certified product from farm inputs like feed or seedlings and all the farming activities until the product leaves the farm.
This standard is primarily designed to reassure consumers about how food is produced on the farm by minimizing environmental impacts of farming operations, reducing the use of chemical inputs and ensuring a responsible approach to worker health and safety as well as animal welfare.
Reference: IShan Palit. CEO. Product service division. TÜV SÜD. 2011