SACRU reflections on
World Food Safety Day

World Food Safety Day will be celebrated by the United Nations on Tuesday, June 7th. For the occasion, the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities has gathered the opinions of its experts on the topic

Although the United Nations General Assembly established World Food Safety Day only four years ago, in 2018, the observance of this occasion takes on a crucial relevance in the post-Covid global scenario. The World Health Organization (WHO) data are clear: 600 million people fall ill as a result of eating contaminated food; more than 200 illnesses are caused by food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals; $110 billion in productivity and medical costs are lost in low- and middle-income countries due to unsafe food; and children under the age of 5 years are victims of 40 percent of foodborne illnesses, with 125,000 deaths annually.

The issue of Food Safety involves society as a whole. Everyone can play their part in strengthening the food chain, from individual consumers to food businesses and academic and government institutions. In line with the theme launched for this year by the WHO and the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), Safer Food – Better Health, the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities has collected the reflections of its experts on the topic. The contributions represent the personal opinions of individual academics and are not intended to be the official position of SACRU and its universities.

Contributions by experts – SACRU Universities

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy)

Written by Pier Sandro Cocconcelli, Chair Professor of Food Microbiology

Food Safety: a grand challenge on a local and global scale

Food Safety is achieved when conditions exist that preserve the quality of food and prevent contamination that leads to foodborne diseases, allowing all consumers/citizens access to safe and nutritious food. Experience over the past decades has shown that Food Safety is not just about food and consumers. It also depends on several factors related to food production, including the environment, plant and animal health, animal feed, food ingredients, food contact materials, additives, and nutrition, in the so-called ‘farm to plate’ approach.

In addressing Food Safety complexity, some key aspects should be emphasized:

  • unsafe food poses a threat to consumers globally, causing a range of diseases, intoxications, and infections that affect consumers’ health and life expectancy. However, the impact of food contamination on people is unevenly distributed, with citizens of low-income countries being more exposed to foodborne risk resulting in higher rates of foodborne illness, particularly for the most vulnerable populations, such as children;
  • food insecurity and foodborne disease are closely linked: unsafe foodstuff is consumed when safe food is not accessible. For instance, recent changes in the geopolitical situation, which impact access to food for entire nations, are expected to affect Food Safety;
  • new and emerging food risks challenge Food Safety systems and consumer health. Examples are climate change, which increases the prevalence of pathogens or toxins in food, or the emergence of new pathogenic bacteria;
  • Food Safety relates to food loss and waste; thus, contaminated food is unfit for human consumption, and it should be withdrawn from the market;
  • Food Safety has global implications: food risks spread with food trade, and compliance with safety criteria can hinder exports from developing countries.

The occasion of World Food Safety Day stimulates a critical analysis of what actions are needed to prevent and manage foodborne risks. Four main topics have been identified:

  • Food Safety can only be pursued with the active contribution of all actors in the food system: those responsible for environmental management, agricultural and livestock production, food processing and retailing, the consumers, and the risk managers (policymakers and governmental institutions). Better communication and knowledge exchange between the scientific community, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and citizens shall be fostered;
  • efficient risk assessment and risk management systems at the national and supernational levels should be implemented. The risk analysis framework, developed by Codex Alimentarius and applied in the European Union, in which scientific assessment supports the risk managers to apply evidence risk mitigation strategies, has shown to be very effective in ensuring human and animal health and environment protection. However, this approach is not widely diffused, and policy measures should be strengthened in several countries;
  • scientific research plays a key role in defining innovative and sustainable solutions to prevent known and emerging risks that endanger the health of citizens. Moreover, new breakthroughs should be transferred out of high-tech environments, consisting of research centers, innovative companies, and transnational corporations, reaching stakeholders in the food system and avoiding deepening the knowledge gap between low- and high-income countries;
  • pursuing Food Safety throughout the food system requires specific competencies. The university system should develop capacity-building programs to educate and train the new generation of young professionals called upon to manage Food Safety globally.

Universitat Ramon Llull (Spain)

Written by Alícia Orta Ramírez, Facultat de Ciències de la Salut Blanquerna, and Xavier Ortiz Almirall, Institut Químic de Sarrià

 Food Safety, Food Security and geopolitics

Although the concepts of Food Security and Food Safety are clearly differentiated in English, in many other languages security and safety share the same word (seguretat, sicurezza, sécurité…among many others). In any case, even though they are related and both pose a threat to the world population, we must make a distinction between the two. According to the United Nations, food security is achieved when “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”. Thus, Food Safety is an integral part of food security, but it refers mostly to the innocuity of food products, meaning that safe foods are free from physical, chemical, or biological agents that can cause harm to the consumer. Foods can be contaminated with these agents during harvest, distribution, and storage; that is, at any point in the “farm to fork” chain where the product is exposed to internal or external conditions (temperature, humidity, light, poor hygiene, etc.) that are conducive to contamination. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1 in 10 people become sick and close to half a million die in the world every year from eating contaminated food products. In addition to the lives of people, Food Safety has a strong impact on the socioeconomic development of countries: it directly affects the national health systems, and puts a lot of pressure on trade, tourism, and the overall economy.

Recent changes in world geopolitics can and will certainly influence Food Safety. War, lack of resources, environmental disasters, economy crashes, and humanitarian crises support situations where the safety (and security) of the food supply is compromised at many levels. Moreover, given the shift currently occurring in the geopolitical landscape, there is an urgent need to harmonize food laws, regulations, and best practices to procure an effective food control system that ensures Food Safety and quality worldwide.

Australian Catholic University (Australia)

Written by Bo Wang, Lecturer in Nutrition and Food Science

Food Safety challenges in the new geopolitical context

It is well accepted that geopolitics has a significant impact on food availability and security, particularly in those import-dependent fragile developing economies, such as the countries with food spikes and food riots during the food crisis in 2007-2008 and 2011-2012. Nowadays, we are living on a planet with political and even military conflicts. These significantly impacted the production and trade of food. For instance, Russia banned Western agricultural products in 2014, China imposed a de facto ban on imports of US soy during the US-China trade war in 2018 and most recently, the war between Russia and Ukraine disrupted the exportation of Ukraine wheat in 2022. Definitely, this new geopolitical context will stoke food crisis for years, but will it also induce challenges to Food Safety? Unfortunately, that answer seems yes.

i) Due to the food shortage in some fragile developing economies caused by the conflict, the starving population may use wild animals as alternatives
Before the Russia-Ukraine war, Ukraine was considered as the world’s breadbasket and it exported 12% of the wheat, 15% of corn and 50% of sunflower oil on this planet. In 2021, around 40.7% of these exported foods went to African countries. For example, in the last decade, fragile developing African economies such as Algeria and Nigeria are always among the top 10 countries which imported wheat, flour and wheat products. According to Poland President Andrzej Duda, this war could lead to food shortages in Africa. In this context, the starving populations may consider wild animals including chimpanzee, gorilla, monkey, rat, deer and fruit bat as alternatives, since this “bush meat” was their source of protein since ancient time. However, the live-and-wet market with poor and unregulated hygiene conditions is always a hotspot for enteric pathogen transmission. Furthermore, the live wild animals in these markets have been linked to the emergency of global pandemics such as Covid-19, Ebola and the most recent Monkey pox.

ii) Due to the price spike of fertiliser, animal waste may be used as an alternative
Both Russia and Ukraine are among the top exporters of the world’s fertiliser: Russia exports 11% of the global urea and 48% of the global ammonium nitrate and Russia and Ukraine together export 28% of multiple fertilisers made from nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Now, disruptions of the fertiliser shipments due to sanctions and war have sent fertiliser prices skyrocketing. In this context, animal manure seems a promising short-term alternative due to its high nutrient content and low cost. However, the consumption of the agricultural products grown in the soil with untreated, aged or uncompleted composted animal manure may cause foodborne outbreaks, due to the presence of various pathogens such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli such as O157:H7 etc in the animal waste without appropriate treatment.

iii) Due to the disrupted and changed food supply chain, food tracking and tracing the food is becoming more difficult
The new geopolitical context may induce more difficulties in tracking and tracing the food between the economies. This provides more opportunities for food tampering. Meanwhile, it will compromise the effectiveness of food recall, therefore, increasing the public health risks.

Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

Written by Paulo Esteves, Associate Professor – Institute of International Relations

The coming Food Insecurity

In 2018, the United Nations established 7th June as World Food Safety Day. The initiative’s purpose was to raise awareness about the need to ensure Food Safety at all levels, from consumer behaviour to the organization of food systems and food supply chains. In 2022, though, at the World Food Safety Day, our attention turns to multiple events currently affecting global food security: the ongoing pandemic, inflation, an increasingly unstable climate and, on top of everything, the war in Ukraine. Recently, the World Food Programme warned that severe food insecurity doubled to 276 million people during the pandemic. The main reason for global food insecurity is often attributed to rising prices (mainly wheat, maize and vegetable oils, plus transport). Last February, the FAO reported an unprecedented rise in its Food Price Index. We only felt the first effects of the war in Ukraine at that time, particularly regarding energy prices. First assessments of the impacts of the war point to an additional 13 million undernourished people in the short term.

These scenarios indicate the problems of food systems oriented toward the interests of shareholders rather than the citizen’s right to adequate food. These food systems are major CO2 emitters and use natural resources such as water disproportionately and pesticides irresponsibly. The evidence of food systems’ environmental damage, and inability to produce food that ensures nutritional quality and safety, is mounting. The supply chains that structure global food production and distribution will be affected by the unavailability of inputs (whether food or fertilizers) and rising international transport prices. The tragedy will affect the same groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, unfolding the humanitarian crisis: a food crisis within an ongoing health crisis. The hallmark of the tragedy is inequity. If the international response to this new crisis follows the patterns adopted during the pandemic, we will witness food nationalism succeeding vaccine nationalism. In 2015, heads of states and governments set a development agenda that promised to eradicate hunger and provide health for all (2030 Agenda). Moreover, the agenda adopted an approach called “Leaving no One Behind” to prioritize the most vulnerable social groups and tackle intractable inequalities. The pandemic demonstrated how the approach was transformed into a buzzword. Faced with a tragedy that has already been announced, we must provide emergency humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable groups and commit ourselves to create inclusive, resilient, and sustainable food systems.

Sophia University (Japan)

Written by Takeshi Ito, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Graduate School of Global Studies

Centering Social-Ecological Diversity and Interdependence in Our Food Systems

Healthy, nutritious, and sufficient food is closely linked to human well-being and the biosphere’s sustainability. Yet, are our food systems equipped with what is necessary to meet the goals? They gain little support from the current situation. Nearly one in three people in the world did not have access to adequate food in 2020–an annual increase of 320 million people from 2.05 to 2.37 billion (FAO 2021). Agriculture, forestry, and other land use contribute roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC 2022). Our food systems, based on the assumption of scarcity, simply focus on quantities; increasing food production has been seen as the main solution for global food security. While our food system increased the volume of food production, they have not improved nutritional content of food and the world’s population of obese people has more than doubled since 1980 (Gordon et al. 2017).  Furthermore, our food systems have also reduced crop diversity and homogenized our diets. Over time, humans have eaten around 6,000 plant species, but we consume just nine–of which rice, wheat, and maize provide 50 percent of all calories (Saladino 2021).

Ensuring access to healthy, nutritious, and sufficient food for all requires shifting the focus from scarcity, efficiency, and monocropping to relations, quality, and diversity. This suggests that farming as a way of life-making should foreground the principle of biodiversity and recognize the interdependence between human and nature rather than separating them. While farming alters landscapes suitable for the production of plants and livestock, it establishes social relations but also (re)connects producers to nature in ways that entwine social and ecological systems, rather than separate them. Such social-ecological relations are often reciprocal and resilient; while producers receive the benefits of environmental resources, they take good care of the soil, water, plants, livestock, and other organisms, creating biodiversity. Farming thus deepens the interdependent relationship between social-ecological systems, placing producers within a local ecology. Industrial agriculture has standardized and simplified nature, separated producers from nature and communities, and taken ecosystem services for granted. On the International Day of Food Safety, we recognize the diversity and interdependence of social-ecological systems as an important guide for ensuring access to healthy, nutritious, and sufficient food for all.

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Chile)

Written by Fernando O. Mardones, Escuela de Medicina Veterinaria

The emerging and re-emerging risks in the food system

The world is experiencing the worst hunger crisis seen in decades, with an alarming growth rate of food insecurity and requiring urgent food assistance and livelihood support. Today and across 53 countries/territories, over 190 million are close to starvation – facing famine or famine-like conditions – with children and women hit the hardest (Global Report on Food Crises 2022). This food crisis continues to be driven by many integrated drivers that are often mutually reinforcing and vary from country to country. These crises result from conflict, poverty, economic shocks such as hyperinflation and rising commodity prices, and environmental shocks such as flooding or drought. Multiple drives can be grouped into clusters such as:

  1. socio-economic factors, including demographic change, urbanization, growing inequality, unequal access to resources, unhealthy eating habits;
  2. Environmental factors such as climate change, soil degradation, overexploitation of natural resources, water scarcity;
  3. Peace and security, including armed conflict, good governance, and the rule of law.

There are new challenges that can favor the sustainability of the global food system. These include accelerating progress toward the SDGs and strengthening local and global food systems by supporting local production, rural small-scale producer communities, and backyard gardens in low-middle-income countries. Engage with consumers and producers to improve food system resilience to shocks. Identify unintended consequences and trade-offs of cross-sectoral interventions and policies to “future-proof” food systems and adopt risk-based approaches to target future interventions and policies to mitigate future shocks in the global food system and improve food security. Finally, it is crucial to increase relevant research capacity and expertise through interdisciplinary training and research funding for scientists and practitioners, for example, by promoting “One Health” and “Planetary Health” perspectives to cut across traditional domains to address the challenge posed by COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Portugal)

Written by Paula Teixeira, Associate Professor with Aggregation in Food Microbiology

Consumer Food Trends versus Food Safety Challenges

Modern consumer trends towards healthy and sustainable diets are creating Food Safety challenges that need to be considered all along the food chain as “Food safety is everyone’s business”. Consumer expectations are complex. While safe and also convenient food with a long shelf life is demanded, we have seen an increase in demand for “natural”, “preservative-free” and “less processed” products. To add further complexity, consumers typically expect all types of food to be available in all places at all times. These are undoubtedly great challenges for the food industry…. Microbes in food are controlled by imposing more or less severe hurdles which kill them or reduce their growth rate. The combination of various hurdles, the so-called hurdle technology (e.g., heating, refrigeration, reduction of pH values, reduction of water activity, and preservatives), is a strategy often used. When a hurdle is reduced, or eliminated, e.g., preservative-free foods, unless another hurdle is used or the shelf life reduced, Food Safety risks maybe increased. Nitrite is probably the most commonly used curing agent in the meat industry.  In addition to its technological roles, nitrite has antimicrobial properties and is used to prevent outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen that produces the deadly botulinum toxin. Due to health concerns linked to the carcinogenic risk of processed meats, nitrite-free meat products are being launched in the marked. Is the safety of these products being validated?

We are all aware of the need to reduce the levels of sugar and salt in foods. But salt and sugar are also food preservatives, so their reduction/replacement has to be carefully evaluated. The outbreak of foodborne botulism associated with contaminated hazelnut yoghurt in which sugar has been replaced by aspartame clearly illustrates this need. Consumption of fermented foods is associated with a healthy gut microbiome and fermented vegetables are in fashion being even associated with a low COVID-19 mortality. Many people are producing their own fermented vegetables at home as a hobby or, among other reasons, as a way to reduce food waste and also to save some money. If it is true that fermented foods have a low pH, and most pathogens will not survive in this acidic environment, it is also true that home fermentations can go wrong if not properly conducted. Do consumers understand what is a “properly conducted” fermentation? What tools are available for consumers to monitor domestic fermentations? And the zero-waste trends … suggestions to use all food wastes pop up like popcorn on the internet. I am concerned about tips for the use of fruit peels to prepare juices, ice cream, and other ready to eat foods. I always recommend washing and peeling fruit before consumption… but washing removes but does not eliminate all pathogens and chemical residues! Another healthy trend… the use of frozen berries in smoothies and other non-heated foods. I bet most consumers don’t know that these fruits have generally not been washed before freezing and should not be eaten raw. Several viral outbreaks have been associated with the consumption of these products. In this 2022 World Food Safety Day, these are some concerns that a food microbiologist would like to share.

Boston College (United States of America)

Written by Glenn R. Gaudette, Chair of the Department of Engineering

 Developing future foods for all

As we look to the future of food, new technologies such as cell-based (lab-grown) meat offer new opportunities to provide nutritious and safe foods. The production of cell-based meat holds great promise to decrease the environmental burden associated with many animal agriculture systems. Manufacturing of cell-based meat has largely grown from the tissue engineering field, where new biological tissues and organs are grown in the lab to replace diseased ones. For example, skeletal muscle (meat) and fat can be grown by incubating cells with media (sugar water with additional nutrients) in a bioreactor, often on a scaffold. This process allows for the use of different cells and scaffolds that can match the meat likes of different communities.  As these meat products are grown in sterile environments, contamination concerns are decreased in this stage of the manufacturing process. After production, cell-based meat still needs to be packaged, stored, and delivered to consumers, providing opportunities for food contamination. It is essential that safety protocols, along with the development of these novel foods, be established together with community partners to ensure additional economical burdens are not created that will reduce access to those who truly need it.

New entities, with significant financial investments, are forming to support production of these novel foods. While the production of cell-based meat is currently very costly, research investments by governments and private industry around the world will help reduce the cost making it likely that cell-based meat will soon be available to the general population. However, it is essential that this new food source and associated industry be developed while considering Food Safety, nutritional content, availability, and access for all. As this new industry forms, we have the unique opportunity to guide it along a path that will meet the needs of all of society, especially the under-served. Working collectively, we can develop this industry into one that will be a model for all other industries.

Sophia University (Japan)

Written by Takashi Hayashita, Takeshi Hashimoto, Nobuyuki Kanzawa, and Kazuhiro Ema, Faculty of Science and Technology

 Selective Detection and Discrimination of Bacteria for Food Safety

For Food Safety, the detection and identification of bacteria that cause food poisoning is an important issue. The food industry generally uses synthetic preservatives and antibiotics in the food manufacturing process to prevent contamination with food poisoning bacteria. However, overuse and improper use of antibiotics have led to the emergence of bacterial drug resistance, making it difficult to prevent an increase in food poisoning. In fact, multidrug-resistant bacteria, the development of which has been accelerated by the excessive use of antibiotics, has become a global issue in the past decade. As the abuse of antibiotics stimulates undesired genetic mutations in bacteria, specific antibiotic usage is important from the standpoint of achieving sustainable development goals. The need for a bacterial recognition method that would enable the determination of the specific dose of an antibiotic is apparent because existing bacterial recognition methods require several days for bacterial culture or expensive reagents.

This problem has attracted the interest of many research groups, and novel bacterial recognition methods or microbial agents have been studied. Saccharide recognition offers a potential solution because bacteria have specific glycolipids on their surface. Phenylboronic acid in particular is known as a saccharide recognition site because it forms a bond with the cis-diol of saccharides. In 2019, our research team reported that a chemically modified poly(amidoamine) (PAMAM) dendrimer having five phenylboronic acid groups at the terminus was able to recognize bacteria. The B-PAMAM dendrimer probe showed selectivity toward Gram-positive bacteria. The recognition was observed as the aggregate formation between bacteria and probe, which resulted in turbidity change. Based on the results, we additionally introduced a fluorescent dansyl group on B-PAMAM and were able to achieve sensitivity improvement in fluorescence measurements. Recently we have also developed a convenient and selective method for the detection of Gram-positive bacteria using a PAMAM dendrimer probe. The dendrimer that was modified with dipicolylamine (dpa) and phenylboronic acid groups showed the superior selectivity toward Staphylococcus aureus [3]. Our study is expected to contribute to the elucidation of the interaction between synthetic molecules and bacterial surface. Moreover, our novel method showed potential for the rapid and species-specific recognition of various bacteria for Food Safety.