Generally, most people are of the opinion or believe that the food they ingest will not be harmful to their health. Still, from time to time the media reports cases that give rise to concern about food safety. Pesticide residues in food or drinking water, antibiotics in animal feed, hormones in meat, nitrate in green vegetables, new techniques in food processing such as application of biotechnology, and contamination are some examples of causes for concern.
Consumers, when asked to indicate major health risks associated with food consumption, usually put food additives and contaminants first. They are prone to consider high fat consumption and other undesirable eating habits, or inadequate hygienic conditions when handling food in the kitchen, of lower importance.
The consumer's perception of risk is not always associated with reality (see also Chapters 16 and 22). As a result, food safety policy is questioned, unless scientific evidence is not only accounted for, but also the way in which risks are perceived by the consumer. This means that food safety policy should include solving technical problems as well as health education and risk communication.
Food safety is aimed at the prevention and/or reduction of toxicological risks due to food intake. Exposure to food depends on the choice of the total diet, and the composition of individual diet components. Food safety measures should be based on available data and/or relevant research. Information may originate from sources such as:
- epidemiological evidence, health statistics, data on the incidence of diseases resulting from contamination of food with bacteria etc., contamination of drinking water (see Figure 23.1)
- monitoring of the levels of relevant food components and (potential) food contaminants in the environment (water, soil, air, plants, animals) which may involve hazards
- monitoring of food consumption patterns, eating habits, and other behavioral factors relevant to the safety of food handling practices confirmed i unconfirmed
lead: acute-poisoning arsenic: acute poisoning fluoride: mottled teeth nitrate: methemo-1950 globinemia
arsenic skin cance soft water:
cardiovascular disease nitrate: cancer
trace organics: cancer asbestos: cancer lead: mental retardation sodium: elevated blood pressure aluminium: premature aging copper:
infaust diarrhea number of confirmed/ unconfirmed risks
Figure 23.1 Epidemiological evidence of health risks caused by drinking water components. Results presented in the order of publication year of pioneering work. The number of unconfirmed risks increases much more rapidly than the number of confirmed risks. Source: Grimvall and Ejvengard, 1986.
- specific surveys and investigations intended to confirm or reject hypotheses on food-borne health risk factors
- notification of problems associated with food-borne health risks, crossing the border from an adjacent country
- specific experience in other countries.
An adequate and coherent system for monitoring and surveillance of the critical factors and parameters, an (inter)national network of expert contacts, and in particular political backing for funding and operation of the relevant government services are of vital importance for a timely identification of (potential) food safety problems.
In this way, risk identification can be a useful tool to optimize the efficacy and preventive potential of food safety policy. Prevention of risks from food intake rather than reduction is the key to a fruitful food safety policy. It is practically unfeasible to examine all, say 15,000, food products on the shelves of an ordinary supermarket for health hazards every day. Protection of the consumer can be achieved more effectively and at lower costs by analyzing and checking the critical points in the food supply system.
Health risks from food intake against which policy measures are issued, can be very diverse, ranging from an acute threat to the majority of the population to a potential risk which poses health problems to a limited number of consumers only in the long term. Illustrative examples of the various types of risks from food intake are
- fraudulent use of veterinary drugs in cattle breeding that may lead to contamination of meat or dairy products with substances that have inadequately been screened and tested for potential toxicity
- deficient education and training of the personnel working in food catering services may result in inaccurate hygienic practices in the handling and preparation of food, giving rise to an increase in food infections or food poisonings due to pathogenic microorganisms
- uninspected dumping of industrial and household waste in agricultural areas may cause contamination of food chains and farming products with harmful chemicals and pathogenic bacteria
- introduction of new varieties of vegetables, cereals, and potatoes may unintentionally result in exposure of consumers to harmful concentrations of substances, originating from wild-type varieties in breeding
- improper use of pesticides such as DDT in developing countries supplying raw materials for animal feed may result in contaminated meat and dairy products in countries importing such raw materials
- availability of new techniques for food packaging and preservation may make it appear that as far as prolongation of the shelf life of perishable food products is concerned, "nothing seems impossible." This may reduce the alertness of the consumer with respect to the risks associated with food infection and spoilage
- scaling-up of food production processes may involve hazards, such as the formation of nitrosamines in beer as a result of the direct contact with traces of nitrogen compounds in the hot vapors from the brewery boiler-house during the large-scale drying of malted barley
- (particularly in affluent societies,) consumers depend more and more on diets based on products that are readily available almost year-round. This requires the application of an immense number of interventions, processes, techniques, processing aids, and food additives, all of which may, alone or in combination, have effects on the safety of such foodstuffs. For example, the nitrate contents of greenhouse-cultivated vegetables may be twice or three times as high as that of summer-harvested crops, and even exceed the safety limits
- food shortages, famine or poverty may lead to the consumption of inferior, partly spoiled, or otherwise harmful products that normally would have been considered unsuitable for human consumption
- unfamiliarity with the hazards of food handling, storage, and preservation at home may result in inadequate use of techniques, especially heating. One result may be the development of the dangerous Clostridium botulinum bacteria
- the increasing popularity of microwave ovens may also increase the risk of Salmonella infections on heating raw chicken. Further, the use of microwave ovens stimulates the demand for "cold-chain" products which are preserved by techniques that may facilitate infections by psychrophylic pathogenic bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes
- the increasing popularity of farm shopping (buying fruits, vegetables, dairy products, etc. directly from the farm) may involve by-passing the usual control procedures on the way between farm and shop
- food intolerance is not always noticed by the national health services, and the consumers (or parents of children) involved are not aware of this possibility
- changes in government administration and/or priorities, leading to a cutback of government spending for the food inspection services, may make it difficult to meet the minimum requirements that are of vital importance to problem analysis and food safety.
These and other examples of food hazards may be identified and quantified by the government officials responsible for food safety policy. It should be realized, however, that most countries do not have a food and nutrition policy, including food safety aspects. At present, only seven European countries have such a policy, namely Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. This means that in many countries, food hazards are not dealt with in an adequate way, i.e., on an ad-hoc basis rather than according to a coherent monitoring and surveillance system. Once a food hazard has been identified, the next step (of the government) should be action to reduce the hazard to an acceptable level.
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