Five Reasons Why Brands Should Avoid Food Scandals

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

The food industry needs to adhere to international and local regulations; the responsibility lies within the industry to prevent food scandals, says Professor Joergen Schlundt from the Nanyang Technological University Food Technology Centre (NAFTEC).


Food chains are increasingly long and complex. Changes in the way food is produced, distributed and sold is re-arranging the landscape of the food production chains globally.
This, in turn, has drawn new attention to the importance and challenge of ensuring food security and safety, as well as the inherent responsibility of the food industry to ensure the safety of the food produced. While the issues around foodborne disease events and food scandals are primarily important, these are five key points to note to avoid scandals in the industry.


The Food Industry Is Responsible
…for the safety of the food produced. International guidelines as well as most regulatory regimes in developed countries now put the responsibility right at the feet of food industry (European Food Law, 2002). Regulators, on the other hand, have the responsibility for setting up systems to generally control implementation of rules and to respond to outbreaks or contamination events. When you think about it, this makes good sense, especially when we consider how difficult (some would say impossible) it would be for regulators to ensure safety of all food on the market!


Food Scandals Are Destructive, Even For Big Brands
If you doubt my words, try looking up FINDUS products in UK, Ireland and a number of other European countries. After the horsemeat scandal in 2013, the brand basically dropped out of certain markets (was re-branded!). However, it is important to note that the horsemeat scandal was not really about safety (although some still mention a specific veterinary drug used for horses that would not be acceptable in food!).

Another major scandal that was indeed about safety occurred in 1997 where more than 10,000 tonnes of minced beef was recalled by Hudson Beef in the USA. As a result, the Hudson beef processor is no more. These scandals did not only have single industry implications, they also affected the reputation of countries or even regions as a result.

Remember the Mad Cow Disease scandal in 1996 originating in the UK and spreading to several countries within the EU? The scandal resulted in a total revision of the European food safety system. More recently, the melamine scandal in China in 2008, resulted in the hospitalisation of more than 300,000 children, and most likely the death of at least six of these infants. This scandal resulted in the eradication of certain infant formula brands and indeed triggered a revision of the Chinese food safety system.


Your Brand Will Be Left Out If You Don’t Document Prevention
There is a new focus on basing policy decisions related to food on scientific risk assessment. Thus, we need data from the full production chain: from live animals in farms to food factories, and even to the final kitchens preparing food. These types of data and estimations are necessary to focus cost-effective prevention—if your company is caught in a food scandal and is not able to document preventive and proactive action, you will lose out in the competition. It is very difficult, and typically takes a long time to build a brand reputation. However, what has been built can be lost very quickly in only one major event/scandal.


Major Retail And Food Companies Start To Compete In Safety
In the past, major food companies repeatedly stated that they would never compete regarding food safety: “Safety is a given in the food we produce!” But this is now changing. There is a growing realisation that no foods are 100 percent safe, and that the main thing food industry can do is to increase the safety of the food they produce.

In almost all cases, they can never (at least not in the foreseeable future) get to zero risk. This means that the choices producers or retailers make do not make a food ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’, instead the producers have an impact on the level of safety, and an impact that is increasingly seen by the consumer. Take MacDonald’s decision to not use chicken raised with antimicrobial growth promoters, or listen to Frank Yiannas from Walmart: “I firmly believe that it is our responsibility as food retailers to advocate for consumers and strive to create a safer and more affordable and sustainable food system.”

This is all leading in the direction of improving the system towards safer products, and thus, conveying to consumers: ‘Our products are safer!’


Remember: Food Safety Is Not All About Scandals
In the old days—not so many years ago—the main issue for regulators was to prevent and deal with foodborne disease outbreaks/scandals. Now, however, we know that more than 90 percent of foodborne diseases do not occur in outbreaks but are ‘sporadic’ cases.

In the future, the use of new technologies will enable researchers and regulators to link these cases back to specific products. The main driver for this change is the rapid implementation of ‘whole genome DNA sequencing’ (WGS) in the microbiological area, but also new detection techniques in the chemical contamination area.

When sporadic cases can be linked back to specific products, brands and companies, more cases will be considered part of outbreaks and potentially lead to scandals. The problem in the past was that we were not able to recognise these sporadic cases as parts of outbreaks, but in the future, we have the technology to do so. The introduction of WGS technology in the USA (from 2015) has been documented to result in a five- to ten-fold increase in the number of Listeria cases that can be linked back to a product or brand, which then in turn results in prevention of disease, as well as scandals.


Let’s Not Forget About Food Fraud
Several of the examples mentioned here are actually primarily food fraud scandals (horse-meat, melamine) but food fraud in general has not received too much attention in the past. This is rapidly changing. As an outcome of a meeting here in Singapore in 2016, the INFOSAN (WHO/FAO International Food safety Authorities Network) decided that food fraud issues need to be dealt with within the food safety systems that have been built. This is crucial because some of these fraud cases clearly also link to safety (melamine scandal an example of this), but also because it is not always possible to immediately decide whether a contamination has a random/natural cause or is in effect a case of fraud.


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