By Pendragon Stuart, former Consultant at Sancroft.
What has the power to slash food waste, save lives, fight corruption and protect brands from boycotts? The safety of the food we eat is taken for granted in many countries, but as our global food system changes rapidly, we see signs of a coming crisis – and new, often tech-driven solutions that will help overcome these challenges and delight consumers.
The Challenges – Falling trust in standards
What are the building issues? In Brazil, meat that is falsely certified safe has formed part of bigger corruption scandals; in the UK, two thirds of audited meat plants are in breach of health and safety rules.  In the UK, Brexit also raises food safety and labelling questions, including access to EU food safety surveillance systems. There are also concerns that post-Brexit the UK may import more meat from the US, who have different food safety standards, and higher national rates of food poisoning. Meanwhile Maggi noodles in India still faces a class-action lawsuit related to concerns around lead levels in 2015 – in spite of many tests that have shown lead levels are undetectable or below the set safety levels. These concerns are also growing in our globalised food system where tracking food becomes harder, and consumers begin to question everything on ingredients lists, from GMO to artificial additives, antibiotics in animal breeding and more.
Therefore, we risk the breakdown of trust in the food system, which would have major implications for businesses, from brand boycotts to growing lawsuits. The challenge here is that even if the science and certification are sound, and the product is technically safe, if trust is lost, then an ‘expert verdict’ may not be enough. And if the rules and regulations that people rely on are no longer respected because they are judged corrupt or not rigorous, we could see people abandoning old common standards, instead relying on short-cuts they think mean safe, like ‘locally sourced’ – even if local suppliers have poor standards. This could cause significant harm to public health and create a state of chaos in the food system.
The Challenges – New types of contamination
In addition to the old food safety questions, we are seeing new concerns emerging for instance around allergies and microplastic contamination. As rates of allergies grow rapidly, labelling and contamination becomes even more important – in the UK, the recent case of a teenager dying from eating a sandwich containing sesame has amplified these concerns and led to a review of food labelling laws. Meanwhile people are increasingly worried about the chemicals that might leach out of packaging – like the drive to remove plastics with BPA in them. However the BPA alternatives have not yet been proven safe, and new research is suggesting they may also pose a risk to human health. In fact, with the global drive to reduce or eliminate virgin single use plastic, new types of packaging are being created that do not have long-term health testing, and there are concerns that increasing recycled content will increase the risk of introducing contamination into packaging. Another plastics concern is microplastics – tiny fragments of plastics we often cannot see – which are now entering the food chain as plastics are washed into the ocean and are eaten by fish. They have now also been found in 83% of drinking water samples from 12 nations around the world. These microplastics have already been linked to reduced energy and ability to feed and reproduce in various sea animals, and have been shown to carry bacteria responsible for gastroenteritis – though the full impacts on human health are not yet known.  
So with both existing challenges and a new wave of food safety questions, businesses have an opportunity to step up and solve these issues, protecting consumers and winning trust back for our essentials.
Solutions – improved testing & training
The baseline is developing better testing approaches to ensure no contaminants enter, and better training to raise awareness on risks of e.g. allergen contamination and the steps to avoid this. Although new more complex food systems may seem challenging, technological innovations are helping solve these challenges. First up we have excitement around blockchain applications that can support tracing, monitoring and policing supply chains. We are also seeing new smart packaging that can detect food safety issues – from tags that change colour when they can tell that food has spoiled, to tiny temperature sensors that can tell when a frozen product has thawed and re-frozen somewhere along the cold chain. The food spoilage tags are particularly exciting for their potential to help reduce food waste, if ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates have to be very cautious since they don’t know how food is kept or refrigerated at home. As food waste costs household budgets, and has a huge resource footprint, this is very promising opportunity – the challenge comes in making sure the sensors are not even more cautious than existing guidance and therefore make people throw away even more food that is still safe to consume.
Solutions – quality communication to rebuild trust
Since trust is an emotive issue, improving standards alone is not enough, but many companies are seeing the benefits of not just focusing on the language of risk and danger, instead improving relationships by communicating quality. Though food quality and food safety are different questions, a strongly communicated food quality story can become a more positive framing of supply chain improvements to re-engage consumers, rather than just reassure standards agencies. For instance, following the China melamine in milk scandal, one of the approaches that is slowly tackling the crisis of trust involves not only improving testing standards, but also introducing better breeds of cows in farms.  This both addresses root issues of low-quality milk being adulterated with melamine and demonstrates that care and attention is being put back into a system that felt uncaring. New technologies that enable tracking of products also can communicate trust and quality – take Almond for instance – it is a newly launched app that lets people scan a barcode to see where all the ingredients of participating brands come from. This is important for winning back consumer trust in the system, and also delivers value to consumers. This can allow for small premiums to be charged that help cover the cost of these safer systems. However, it is important to keep accessibility in mind – so the food system does not further split into safe food for the rich, and ‘risky’ food for the poorer, as that will again undermine trust. Food safety should be the default for everybody.
These are just a few of the broad range of solutions – and the coordinated solution of better enforced regulation, policies and stronger communication and engagement are all required. Working together these can turn a building crisis into a powerful transformation that improves health, reduces waste and builds stronger relationships between people and the brands they buy and the food they eat.
How Sancroft can help:
- Explore the implications and interactions of packaging and food safety, especially where you are looking to transform your packaging solutions
- Horizon scan for future legislation, emerging technologies and changes in consumer expectations that will shape the food safety needs of your products
- Help you develop a trust plan for identifying gaps and restoring faith in the food you offer
- Working with our specialist partners at RSK, we can both set the overall strategy for how to deal with these growing issues, plus design and run the systems that will improve testing and quality in your supply chain. For more on this partnership, please follow this link.