Is this safe to eat?

18 Feb 2016

Protecting the global food supply chain has become a monumental public health challenge. According to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) some 600 million people - almost one in 10 people globally - get sick from eating contaminated food annually and around 420,000 die. 


Southeast Asia ranks second among the regions hardest hit by food-borne diseases, and WHO has pinpointed the lack of infrastructure, such as food research laboratories, as a key obstacle in solving this deadly problem in less developed countries. 


Even when good food testing infrastructure is in place, recent food safety scandals in the region underscore the vulnerabilities of such systems when they are poorly regulated. Last year, Taiwanese supplier Chang Guann’s sale of potentially harmful ‘gutter oil’ – extracted from food waste, offal and the byproducts of tanneries – to hundreds of food companies around Asia was exposed. This triggered mass product recalls in several regional markets including Singapore. Some of these products had in fact been certified safe by Taiwanese authorities, prompting public outcry over lax testing standards.


How companies are addressing food testing


One way some companies are managing consumer concerns over food safety is by taking control of testing processes. Nestlé, for example, runs a Nestlé Quality Assurance Centre (NQAC) in Singapore. It is part of a global network of 26 NQAC laboratories that ensure compliance and product safety through analytical services which comprise microbiology, chemical contaminant testing and nutritional analyses.


“We focus on keeping our testing competency in-house and have heavily invested in state-of-the-art laboratories around the globe with dedicated and skilled staff that leverage on the latest technologies,” said a spokesperson from the Swiss food giant.


Nestlé has one of the largest R&D networks of any food company in the world, with 34 R&D facilities and more than 5,000 people involved in researching food safety.


In 2013, it opened a laboratory to study food pathogens, with facilities that include a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) lab that may be used to detect species of meat in cases of suspected food fraud. Another is a typing lab, which uses molecular typing to understand bacteria properties in order to conduct microbial risk assessments.


 “Nestlé’s R&D is a driving partner in developing new international standards for food testing. Our product development incorporates testing capabilities as a prerequisite for any product launch.”


Meanwhile, researchers from Utrecht University and Unilever Research have also identified a major weakness of complex food supply chains - raw materials, ingredients and finished foods pass through the supply chain more quickly than they can be tested using the accurate analyses required.


One way to address this is through improved testing methods. For instance, screening for Salmonella using the newer methodology of real-time Polymerase-Chain Reaction methods combined with immunomagnetic separation, or centrifugation techniques, is more efficient than standard screening methods.


IBM Research and international food manufacturer Mars Inc. are also collaborating on a pilot project, the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, which aims to use genome sequencing to eliminate and eventually predict dangerous bacteria in the food supply chain.


The importance of consistent regulations


Beyond internal processes, food safety regulations continue to differ across the region, and it can be frustrating for companies seeking market expansion.


Nestlé, a global player meets this challenge by “applying specific testing methods in markets where these are prescribed and using international standards in markets which do not have specific regulations”.


“It may be wishful to have a clear regulatory basis on testing standards. However, this is already the case in China, where the testing methods are provided within the regulatory text. For global comparability and alignment with the rest of the world, international standards such as ISO or AOAC would be a preferred platform,” said the spokesman.


Eu Yan Sang, a homegrown Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) brand, also believes that consistent regulations are necessary for its long-term success.


“For Traditional Chinese Ingredients (TCI) to successfully penetrate the world stage, we need specific safety parameters or guidelines to be adhered to within each country,” said Richard Eu, Group CEO of Eu Yan Sang International Ltd.


 “At present, China is the only country that has an official list of TCI herbs for food. It would be more encouraging if there is an international standard list of TCI ingredients for consistency across borders and markets.”


In order to harmonise regional certification procedures for ingredients, contamination limits and nutrition labelling across ASEAN nations, the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance that brings together policymakers and industry representatives, was introduced. The ASEAN Food Safety Standards Database, first developed in 2003, is another regional tool used to identify regional food safety standards harmonisation targets and needs.


The value of trusted accreditation


Currently, players like Eu Yan Sang seek to bolster its product credibility through accreditations in different areas. For instance, its herbs are sourced from reputable suppliers with GAP (Good Agriculture Practices) certification, and are subject to scientific tests before being processed in GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice)-certified factories in Hong Kong and Malaysia. “Every process we undertake demonstrates full GMP accreditation,” said Eu.


One way Singapore is working to build trustworthy accreditation standards is through the Singapore Accreditation Council (SAC). This is the national authority for the independent accreditation of Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs), including those engaged in food testing. The council’s approval serves as an endorsement that the evaluated bodies meet international standards such as ISO.


SAC also works closely with other accreditation bodies to establish and maintain Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs), which help to build confidence in the competence of accredited CABs. The SAC’s signatory status in MRAs is a global passport for enterprises in Singapore, whose products then do not need to undergo re-testing, re-inspection and re-certification upon entry to importing countries. Two such companies in Singapore are Nestlé, and Abbott, both leading food and nutrition firms.


Regional frameworks


The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority’s Veterinary Public Health Centre (VPHC), the cornerstone of Singapore’s food safety programme, is also making regional strides. It was endorsed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) as Southeast Asia’s first OIE Collaborating Centre for Food Safety in 2014, enabling the VPHC to extend its technical and training expertise to neighbouring countries.


These include rapid methods and automation for the detection and identification of food-borne pathogens; and tests that prevent food fraud, such as differentiating between real and imitation sharkfin, and fresh or chilled meat from thawed frozen meat.


Other regional initiatives include the ASEAN Food Safety Network, established in 2003 to be a channel for ASEAN Member States to exchange information relevant to food safety. Another initiative, the ASEAN Food Reference Laboratory on Mycotoxins, provides annual proficiency tests on various food matrices to train and update staff in national laboratories in ASEAN to test for new and emerging mycotoxins; to date, 24 laboratories from 10 ASEAN countries have taken part in these proficiency tests.


The APEC Food Safety Cooperation Forum (FSCF), officially launched in 2011, implements training programmes[1] throughout the region. Given the region’s relative lack of integration, one of its goals for Asia is to enhance the skills and human resource capacities of national food safety regulatory frameworks, so that they can harmonise with international standards.


With global supply chains getting increasingly complex, implementing and enforcing feasible regulations to safeguard food supply remains one of the industry’s greatest challenges.


[1] Training programmes include standard practices and processes used in domestic and international markets for food safety managers, trainers, government personnel, and other practitioners in the food safety field.