The globalisation of food supplies over the last few decades is having a growing impact on food safety in both developed and developing nations, driving a need for improvements in food safety systems from farm to consumer.
Large complex networks supply fresh foods and ingredients for processed foods in increasingly shorter timeframes, involving businesses ranging from small subsistence farmers to multinational companies.
Food supply and consumption around the world is becoming ever more interconnected, and along with it so is human and farm animal health and the global environment.
According to the FDA, by 2010 the US was importing 10-15% of all food, including more than three-quarters of the fresh fruits and vegetables and more than 80% of fresh and frozen fish and seafood. The US imports food from 200 countries and territories*.
Around 200,000 overseas businesses are registered with the FDA to export foods to the US with varying standards of hygiene and food safety systems. The meat bought by the typical American consumer has travelled 1,000 miles from the farm where it was grown*.
The complex burger
Researchers at the Food Protection and Defense Institute at the University of Minnesota listed the ingredients and mapped the supply chain for a burger with cheese, salad and sauce from a fast food chain. They listed over 80 ingredients sourced from every part of the world, including over 30 countries for vinegar, 8 for garlic powder, 13 for tomatoes, 10 for beef and 15 for wheat gluten.
The seemingly simple burger bun can include, apart from the obvious flour (bleached wheat flour), water, yeast, salt and sesame seeds, around 30 further ingredients for controlling processing properties and texture, baking soda, added vitamins and a number of inorganic chemicals used as preservatives, bleaching agents and yeast nutrients.
It is not just the ingredients that are globalised, so is the processing equipment, packaging and chemicals for cleaning.
For farm production animal feed, fertiliser, pesticides, vaccines, veterinary drugs and farm equipment are also globalised. Each product and stage rely on its own complex interconnected systems, multiplying the risks for food safety.
Advantages and consequences
The worldwide trade in food benefits consumers through lower prices, a greater variety of foods, better quality, less dependence on seasons and supplies available all year round. It has been enabled by developments in transportation, refrigeration, information and communications technology (the internet, mobile phones, just-in-time systems), farming technology, food technology and the liberalisation of global trade.
However, the increasing number of stages and components in the food system covering production, processing, and distribution across large complex networks increases the chance of food-borne illnesses and other hazards, expanding the range of food-borne diseases that can be introduced to the systems.
It also amplifies the health and economic impact of a single contamination event, potentially affecting many more processors, suppliers and consumers across multiple borders.
Consequently, each part of the whole system “from farm to fork” has to be working optimally to maintain the economic health of the participants and the health of the consumer.
Food safety system breakdown
Considering the volume of international trade in food, it is remarkable that there are relatively few food safety incidents. However, one recent example illustrates the potential extent of the risks. The Robert Koch Institute in Germany studied the outbreak of a rare strain of E. coli (O104: H4), first identified in northern Germany in May 2011*.
It found that this outbreak resulted in 4,321 cases of infection, including 3,469 cases of Shiga toxin–producing E. coli and 852 cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). 53 deaths were reported in 14 European countries, the United States, and Canada up to the end of July when the epidemic was declared over. The outbreak of this foodborne illness was eventually linked to fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt.
There was, however, early confusion over the source of the outbreak, linking it erroneously to Spanish vegetables. This caused economic losses to producers in several countries, especially Spanish farmers as it resulted in a major loss of exports. It also caused long-lasting international tensions between producing and consuming countries. The European Union compensated farmers in a number of countries with €220 million in emergency aid, but the total losses were thought to be much higher.
The researchers concluded that the outbreak: “Revealed how rapidly a food-borne pathogen can spread and cause serious illness and death. It demonstrates the importance of proper surveillance systems in order to detect an outbreak early and of a rapid reporting system in notifying the corresponding health authorities.”*
A unique point in history
A report by the UK government Office for Science on the Future of Food and Farming concluded that the world food production system is at a unique point in history, facing an “unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years”^. It identified that on top of the global population pressure (increasing from seven billion to eight billion by 2030, and probably over nine billion by 2050) there will be a shift in expectations due to economic changes.
“Many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.”^
5 key challenges to food security
The report listed five challenges to food security that constitute a major threat:
- Balancing future demand and supply sustainably, to ensure that food supplies are affordable.
- Ensuring that there is adequate stability in food supplies, and protecting the most vulnerable from volatility.
- Achieving global access to food and ending hunger.
- Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change.
- Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world. Many food production systems are unsustainable, putting future production at risk and continue to degrade the environment.
There is a growing movement to take a more holistic view of the problems facing global food supplies. The One Health concept recognises that there is a changing interface between people, animals and the environment and a need for new approaches to ensure food safety, going beyond infectious diseases.
It calls for a collaborative effort across multiple disciplines, working locally, nationally and globally. It also embraces environmental and ecosystem health, wildlife, land use, social sciences, noninfectious diseases and chronic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, biodiversity, and many other issues.
Maintaining food supplies and the resilience of supply chains into the future requires a greater understanding of factors outside of the already complex production and distribution systems and more intelligent systems to monitor food safety and the range of threats that could disrupt these systems.
Find out more about food safety here.
*Institute of Medicine. Improving Food Safety Through a One Health Approach: Workshop Summary. Washington DC: The National Academies Press, 2012. doi:10.17226/13423. Content online (checked 1-March-2016) at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK100665/
^ Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming. Final Project Report. London: The Government Office for Science, 2011. Available online (checked 1-March-2016) at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/288329/11-546-future-of-food-and-farming-report.pdf