Behind any blockbuster food or drink brand comes a very large serving of consumer trust.
So when a popular product is pulled from supermarket shelves because it poses a risk to human health, there is much more than lost revenue at stake.
This may go some way to explaining why some companies elect for widespread voluntary product recalls in spite of their colossal expense.
Confectioner Mars pulled millions of its iconic Mars, Snickers and Milky Way bars from sale in 55 countries in February after a German customer reported small fragments of plastic in one of its products.
According to reports, the plastic was traced back to a protective pipe cover used in its factory in the Dutch town of Veghel.
“As a precaution, the product recall is being implemented in all markets served by our Netherlands facility,” was the company’s swift response.
While recalls on this scale are rare, unwanted plastic, rubber and even metal shavings have materialised in various UK-produced yoghurt and dessert products this year.
UK law firm RPC recently reported that the number of recalls relating to food and drink had significantly increased by 50% in 2015 from 56 to 84, according to data it had analysed from the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Last year foreign bodies such as rubber, plastic, glass, metal and insects contributed to about 5% of all UK food incidents.
To eliminate the possibility of this type of contamination, food manufacturers are embracing preventative plant maintenance strategies, says Colin Dennis, president and fellow at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).
“This is because if you don’t maintain something it will break at some stage.”
Ultimately, all it will need is one high-profile incident to capture the media’s attention…and the fallout will have serious ramifications
Martyn Gill, EMEA managing director of InfinityQS
Contamination can also occur from within production processes, and Dennis says manufacturers will often adopt measures such as ‘flotation’ of produce to remove stones, or use metal detectors to check for other foreign objects.
To eliminate contamination from supply chains, he says many manufacturers are now asking their suppliers to comply with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and become certified over and above minimum legislation requirements.
“Many now use third-party audited BRC [British Retail Consortium] compliance, which is a world-leading quality standard,” he says.
But contamination threats are not limited to man-made materials. Microbial incidents still outnumber any other form of contaminant, and are more likely to result in casualties.
The FSA’s annual report into UK food incidents showed that in 2015, the largest contributors (18%) were pathogenic microorganisms.
The fatal E coli outbreak recently associated with mixed salad leaves in the UK demonstrates why food hygiene inspections throughout supply chains are so important.
Yet, there has been a reported reduction in the frequency of inspections in the UK, according to quality systems specialist, InfinityQS, which it considers a real cause of concern for public safety.
InfinityQS says a recent freedom of information (FOI) request to the FSA revealed the number of UK food hygiene inspections by local authorities had fallen by about 15% since 2003.
“Ultimately, all it will need is one high-profile incident to capture the media’s attention – combined then with the data already available regarding the lack of inspections, and the fallout will have serious ramifications,” says Martyn Gill, EMEA managing director of InfinityQS.
“For food manufacturers, supplier verifications, qualifications, certifications and third-party accreditations are all integral in supporting a system of prevention. However, they need to be reinforced with effective process control technologies,” he adds.
Roy Betts, head of microbiology at Campden BRI, says the two most effective ways to control microbes are sourcing ingredients that are free from them, and designing processes that will kill them during the manufacturing phase.
For food manufacturers, supplier verifications, qualifications, certifications and third-party accreditations are all integral in supporting a system of prevention
Martyn Gill, EMEA managing director of InfinityQS
Factors that can affect microbial growth include pH, water activity, presence of salt and preservatives, the gas atmosphere within the product pack, and the storage temperature.
“Change any of these and there may well be an effect on shelf life,” he says.
Reformulating products to reduce salt and sugar levels or remove preservatives can also have a direct impact.
“Unless this is taken into account, it is possible that a modified product may unexpectedly spoil before the end of a use-by-date that had previously been acceptable.”
The solution is to understand what makes a product microbiologically stable, and either maintain it, or ensure that the use-by-date is suitably modified if changes are introduced, says Betts.
For example, there is a need to know how much heat to use to maintain stability and to validate the cooking processes.
Microorganisms contained in dry products will also be far more heat resistant than those in moist products, says Betts. Factors such as fat or oil levels can also increase heat resistance, while lower cooking temperatures will increase required cook times and may leave some more heat resistant organisms still viable within the product.
“The use of expert microbiological assistance, supplemented where needed by well-designed shelf-life studies, will help in the decision making process and limit recalls due to such issues,” he says.
The University College Dublin (UCD) is investigating a very different approach to the prevention of pathogens in process environments.
Safety does it
Its Centre for Food Safety is working with six food and nutrition companies on predictive software that applies environmental intelligence data.
The goal is to develop a new food safety and quality decision-making software toolbox to mitigate the risk of bacterial contamination in the food supply chain in a more specific and sustainable way.
“Current methods used to control such bacteria are neither sufficiently rapid nor specific. They also use large amounts of energy, water and chemicals – none of which are sustainable or kind to our environment,” it says.
For a two-year period the researchers at UCD will track the environments in a number of food manufacturing plants in Ireland.
By mapping the microbiomes of the process plants across the seasons, it will develop databases to leverage gene sequencing technology and statistical analysis to define bacterial characteristics at the DNA level.
Smarter shelf life
These databases will then be used to develop a predictive software toolbox. It is hoped this will help to prevent bacteria that spoil food and risk health in a faster and more sustainable way.
According to some experts, it’s only a matter of time before consumers are also given the means to determine the safety of food products, once they have been purchased.
This will come in the form of ‘intelligent packaging’ solutions that communicate information such as shelf life, freshness and quality.
“We need consumer-friendly sensors for products that say, ‘Hey, this food is fresh and safe to eat, or it isn’t’,” says Claire Sand, an adjunct professor of packaging at Michigan State University and owner of Packaging Technology & Research.
“We’re very close to being able to do this for a multitude of foods.”
We need consumer-friendly sensors for products that say, ‘Hey, this food is fresh and safe to eat, or it isn’t’
Claire Sand, an adjunct professor of packaging at Michigan State University
Presenting her ideas at a recent IFT symposium, Sand says intelligent packaging is already used on some food products, but will become more widespread in the next few years.
Simpler solutions take into account the time and temperature of products, which are tied to deterioration.
For instance, fish or chicken left out on the counter will spoil faster than if it’s kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
But a new generation of degradation sensors will actually measure products’ decay, Sand says.
Adulterated food in the supply chain is another growing concern for manufacturers, often resulting from substitution of cheaper ingredients, or inaccurate descriptions on the label, say experts.
The fastest-growing safety threat identified by the FSA’s report into UK food incidents was undeclared allergens on product labels.
These accounted for 14% of last year’s food incidents, ranking them just below pathogens.
A National Food Crime Unit was established in the wake of the 2013 horsemeat scandal with a mission to tackle this type of food fraud in the UK.
A demand for more scientific methods of tracking food fraud is also opening the door to new detection techniques.
While fraud detection has traditionally relied on DNA identification, this process is time consuming, destructive, and requires specialist training, according to researchers from The Government Chemist programme.
This has spurred the researchers to develop new nondestructive techniques such as multispectral and hyperspectral imaging.
Using pasta as a case study, findings on the feasibility of these imaging techniques recently appeared in the Food and Nutrition Sciences journal.
“The results outlined in this paper demonstrate the potential for spectral imaging-based adulteration testing of seeds and grains to augment existing standard molecular approaches for food authenticity testing,” say researchers from the programme.
Because accidental cross contamination of food has the potential to cause fatal allergic reaction in consumers, increased rigour throughout supply chain networks is essential, says the IFT’s Dennis.
Manufacturers will use scoops and brooms in the process that have been colour-coded so staff can only use particular scoops with particular ingredients
Colin Dennis, president and fellow at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)
When it comes to handling potential allergens within a process plant, segregation and labelling practices are also critical.
“Manufacturers will use scoops and brooms in the process that have been colour-coded so staff can only use particular scoops with particular ingredients,” he says.
Industry best practice also demands accurate labelling of allergens and following the general Food Safety Act by taking all reasonable measures.
“Quality control work is also an important part of the supply chain process,” says Dennis. This means thoroughly checking systems and documentation from any new suppliers, and thinking through the ramifications of any new plant processes.
“If you are practicing Good Manufacturing Practice and running an effective asset management programme, when you change supplier, ingredient or reformulation, you should always conduct another assessment of risk,” he says.
Food manufacturers are increasingly seeking to eliminate all weak points in their defences, says Bureau Veritas, a specialist in industrial inspection and certification.
Until recently, one of the grey areas had been pest management, with service providers often working to an arbitrary set of standards.
Hence why the recent introduction of a European quality standard for pest management services has been hailed as a significant step forward for the food processing industry, says Peter Davison, business development manager for food & beverage at Bureau Veritas.
Davison, who helped to draft the new standard, says members of the Confederation of European Pest Management Associations (CEPA) set up a working group five years ago to put the wheels in motion.
In January the EN 16636 (referred to as ‘CEPA Certified’) began commercial roll out in the UK. Six months on and Davison says UK companies are leading the way with 40 companies already approved, with numbers expected to rise to 100 by the end of the year.
“The introduction of CEPA Certified demonstrates that the pest management industry is serious about its responsibilities, and is helping to align the pest control sector with the needs of its most demanding clients whilst providing an extra safeguard,” he says.
The market for herbs and spices is complex with supply chains and products being sourced globally from large-scale producers to smallholders.
According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), some batches of ground cumin and paprika recently tested positive for undeclared peanut protein in North America.
The level of contamination suggested adulteration with cheaper materials for financial gain, representing a significant public health risk to people with nut allergies, says the FSA.
It found that follow up sampling programmes in the UK also identified low levels of peanut and almond contamination, though not on the same scale as found in North America.
To address this potentially serious safety issue, the agency met with representatives from the food industry to identify possible weaknesses in supply chains for dried herbs and spices in the UK.
“Solutions for addressing these vulnerabilities were also explored and ways of mitigating potential threats to product integrity were identified,” says Catherine Brown, chief executive of the FSA.
The result was the creation of a document called Guidance on Authenticity of Herbs and Spices.
Aimed at the food processing sector, it discusses ways to identify and prevent vulnerabilities in herb and spice supply chains, and is now available to download on the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) website.
“No process can guarantee that food businesses are not the target of fraudulent activity, but the use of this document can make it less likely,” says Brown.