Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Food Safety Rests on Four Interlocking Issues

By Kaye Basford

Systems, technology, culture and trust are essential elements of safety in our food supply.

Australian and Chinese agricultural leaders have agreed on the need to address a pyramid of interlocking issues to address the world’s requirements for a safe and sustainable food chain. They have identified the issues of systems and technology, underpinning culture and trust, as the key requirements to deliver food safety and win international community support.

This breakthrough identification of the key food safety issues came at an April workshop in Beijing jointly run by the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering to focus on technology advances in food safety. I led the ATSE delegation of leading Australian thinkers on the topic.

The drive to put some structure around food safety is driven by the fact that we live in a world with:

  • increasing population and urbanisation;
  • changing agricultural practices and climate;
  • increasing technological intervention in food production;
  • increasing volume and diversity of trade in food;
  • changing requirements for food preparation; and
  • increasing demand for safe food.

The workshop agreed that we need to ensure food safety along the whole agrifood chain – or “web” – as we now have complex food solutions involving both fresh and processed food of domestic and international origin. Consumers’ expectation of 100% health protection requires the joint efforts of all stakeholders, and effective coordination of government policy and regulation with industry control and management.

Governments develop standards to protect their population, and these often vary from country to country. But there are advantages in using global benchmarks and standards for food safety best practice and the recognition of equivalent schemes (such as the Global Food Safety Initiative with harmonised additional retail customer requirements).

As fewer obstacles to production and distribution give better results, there is a need for straightforward guidelines and assessment tools.

Technology and engineering involved in food production, processing and preservation has enabled us to remove impurities (such as pollutants and residues) while not adding adverse toxins. The internet and Global Information Systems enable improved growth and harvesting processes (through monitoring and control).

Technology will play an even more important role in the seamless integration of product identification and global traceability through information collection (barcode and sensor technology), transmission (data exchangeability through common formats and interface standards) and processing (data mining and food quality diagnosis).

Real-time records at all stages will become commonplace, and will require advanced information and communication technology for data security.

We also identified the need for a culture in which:

  • producers and agribusinesses take responsibility for food safety, are proactive rather than reactive and implement “global best practice”;
  • they employ a risk analysis framework involving science-based assessment, policy-based management and open communication;
  • unannounced audits requiring real-time data will be commonplace and welcome; and
  • better labelling will meet consumer demands for transparency and sustainability.

Integrated supply web assurance through government and industry collaboration will allay community concerns about food safety and quality, and engender trust. Reputation is all important. It is extremely difficult to regain consumer confidence once it is tarnished (as shown in recent food scandals). Consumer trust is essential.

Unfortunately, public perception of risks in food safety is not the same as actual risks. Attitudes to food safety are often influenced by values rather than by logic and technical information. Thus when information is “complex”, people tend to make “emotional” judgements.

New and potentially risky technology, such as genetic modification, needs to demonstrate considerable “benefits” to producers and consumers to overcome misperceptions (such as genetic modification being common in fruit and vegetables, when that is not true).

Professor Kaye Basford FTSE is a Vice President and Director of ATSE and chairs its International Strategy Group. She is Professor of Biometry at the University of Queensland and a Board Trustee of the International Rice Research Institute and a Director of the Crawford Fund.