The World Health Organization estimates that 600 million people – almost 1 in 10 globally – suffer from a food-borne disease due to consuming contaminated food. Many millions become sick, and 420,000 people are dying yearly.1 Despite wide-scale food contamination events, achieving food safety is still a developing concept in countries like India. Read on to know the complexity involved and the emerging process that provide a ray of hope towards making food safe again.
When a food risk of any kind is identified, authorities and businesses must effectively trace it back to its source to prevent at-risk products from reaching the consumer.
With the increase of international trade over the last 20 years and longer, more complex food chains, the risk of food contamination and the transport of infected food products across national borders rise significantly.
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Why is food safety important?
Ever Growing cities, climate change, migration, and increased international travel exposes people to new food safety hazards. This situation calls for new approaches and solutions that aim for a transparent and safe supply chain.
Ensuring food safety requires meticulous planning and participation from all stakeholders as part of the supply chain. Every stakeholder within the supply chain must follow regulations mandated by local and international food authorities to achieve food safety. However, because most of these processes are still paper-based or do not have a specialized system, we have seen outbreaks that could have been prevented if only effective strategies were put in place.
In late June 2008, 300,000 infants and young children in China were victims of one of the most prominent cases of food counterfeit of the twenty-first century. The culprit was a chemical compound called melamine, typically used in plastic and fertilizer production, that made its way into baby formula. This incident highlighted the complexity of international trade in food products and ingredients and illustrated the importance of a reliable supply chain.
The next large food safety case, this time of microbial source, was the epidemic outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in Germany (May 2011). Linked to contaminated fenugreek sprouts, where infected subjects were reported in 8 countries in Europe and North America, leading to 53 deaths and demonstrating the shortcomings of the international food supply chain.
What measures are being adopted to achieve food safety?
Any incidents such as the above that endanger millions of people worldwide drive international agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and local government authorities to establish food safety management systems. Some of the well-known sources that have demonstrated effective regulations towards achieving food safety are:
- The United States Food Drug Administration (US FDA) having two central policies: The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA).
- The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), with its regulation EC/178/2002, through which Europe has achieved one of the lowest levels of food contamination.
The search for an emerging solution to ensuring food safety at the global level concerns us all. It involves both industries that depend directly on agricultural production and those in non-agricultural sectors that rely on farming cash crops for their raw materials: tea, coffee, cotton, jute, sugar cane, oilseeds, just to mention some.
Food is essential for life; therefore, food safety is a fundamental human right and a necessity that is doubly urgent in countries like India.
What are the challenges to achieving food safety in India?
India is the second-largest producer of fruit and vegetables globally; agriculture contributes to 16% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 43% of the Indian workforce.2
With agriculture at the heart of India’s economy, one might think that this sector should be functioning at its full potential, but this is not the case.
Various factors such as the presence of multiple intermediaries along the value chain, limited access to credit and markets, insufficient transparency, and disorganization in the market and supply chain inhibit its development.
And are particularly detrimental to smallholder farmers who constitute the majority of India’s farms (86%); therefore, an effective food traceability system is necessary to manage quality and safety risks and promote the development of effective supply chain management in India.
What are the steps being taken towards achieving food safety in India?
Various government initiatives to support and improve digital infrastructure in India’s landscape have been put into place over the last few years to create a partnership-oriented approach.
Agricultural Technology (Agritech) players can enable the agriculture value chain intermediaries through technology-led solutions leading to easily actionable information and decision making.
For this reason, it is not surprising to observe the growing participation of startups that have taken an active, almost leading role in re-imagining agriculture through state-of-the-art data management and that specialize in different segments of the entire food supply chain.
One of the emerging processes that address food safety is food traceability; this new approach is the meeting point between effectiveness, creativity, and technology and has become the only way to ensure food safety and food quality.
What is food traceability, and how can it help to achieve food safety?
Food traceability is the process that follows the movement of a food product and its ingredients through all steps in the supply chain, both back and forward. This “back and forward” or “recall” is a crucial aspect of food safety.
It means that in the case of a food-borne illness outbreak or contamination event, government agencies and food producers and sellers can rapidly find the source of the contaminated product, remove it off the marketplace and reduce the incidences of food-borne illnesses.
Besides being an essential tool for achieving food safety and food quality, food traceability technology increases the overall performance in production, efficiency (time/cost), and profitability (income) of farmers throughout the agricultural value chain.
How can brands ensure food safety through food traceability?
This approach to Innovation in agriculture becomes an important competitive advantage for industries and brands seeking to ensure consumer food safety in all their products. With the rise of consumer awareness, companies can cater to the most demanding customers’ needs and exceed their expectations, facilitating their decision processes.
According to data from the Label Insight and Food Marketing Institute Survey, the number of users willing to switch to brands that provide ‘more in-depth information beyond what’s provided on the physical label’ rose almost twofold from 2016 to 2018, from 36% to 78%’.
Consumers are increasingly interested in what is printed on the outside of the package as well as what is on the inside. Recent world events have spotlighted issues affecting people’s health and the need to preserve the ecosystem in balance. People are becoming aware of the environmental and social impact of their consumption choices and their rights as consumers. As they become more aware and demanding, brands need to be more attentive.
How can food traceability help consumers?
For consumers, it means having the peace of mind that they are choosing products of the highest quality, safe in the knowledge that there is nothing in their shopping trolley that could put their health and the health of their loved ones at risk.
Employing traceability mechanisms in food is a game-changer. Along with meeting the need of the hour, food safety is empowering the people involved in the supply chain, from end to end. For the consumer, it serves as an ethical approach that provides sufficient information to make the wisest choices.
Watch out for this space as we dive deeper to bring out nuances of food traceability, and talk about the latest technologies that empower brands and consumers to make informed choices. Parts two and three of this trifecta series will change the way you look at product labels again.