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The dangers posed to food safety

Recently, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) welcomed global food regulators to Dublin for the fourth annual meeting of the International Heads of Food Agencies Forum. This forum facilitated discussion on how best to prepare for food-safety crises, and manage food-safety incidents in what is becoming an increasingly complex global food system. Bernie Commins caught up with FSAI chief executive, Dr Pamela Byrne to find out more.

Food security and food supply have been high on the debate agenda since the outbreak of war in Ukraine highlighted their precariousness. These, and other factors, directly impact our food safety, which is a real concern. “Predicting the future of food safety even on an Irish scale is uncertain let alone on a global scale,” says Dr Byrne. “That said, some of the main drivers are clear: climate change, geopolitical instability, advances in technology, sustainability of the food system. Online selling continues to challenge the traditional organisation of food safety oversight and authorities like the FSAI must adapt and adopt new techniques to address unsafe foods promoted and sold electronically. This is a concern for all countries, not just Ireland.”
But in what ways do these drivers threaten our food safety? Climate change, Dr Byrne explains, disrupts food supply: “Extreme weather events cause food scarcity by destroying harvests, forcing supply chains to switch to sources that are less familiar and that have a food safety track record that is not so well established. Potential food-safety threats linked to weather include increased mycotoxin concentrations in crops caused by fungal growth, spoilage of food and ingress of bacterial pathogens a well as contamination threats from poorer quality water sources.”
Sustainability, Dr Byrne says, will broaden the availability of different protein sources where research will be needed to establish safety – in the case of edible insects, for example, and consumer responses will drive changes to eating patterns that will make fringe diets become more mainstream.
“With that comes higher demand for new foods, which can expose a greater proportion of the population to food-safety issues associated with these. For example, with the rise in demand for vegetable proteins comes a rise in the threat of bacterial toxins from Bacillus cereus if appropriate preservation strategies are not adopted. Drivers cause change in the food system and new food-safety challenges arise, which can sometimes be hard to predict,” says Dr Byrne.

Risk and assessment

That’s why the FSAI has an active emerging-risk-identification system in tandem with other EU Member States and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). “Our vision is ‘safe and trustworthy food for everyone’ and within that context we assess food safety risks in a number of different ways,” explains Dr Byrne. Assessment takes the form of inspections of food businesses, sampling of the food-supply, audits, responding to consumer complaints, dealing with protected disclosures, engagement with regulatory partners at national, European and international level, and developing horizon scanning tools to identify emerging risks. “From these assessments, we take the appropriate action to remove, manage or mitigate the risk within the bounds of the legal framework," says Dr Byrne. She adds: "Proactively, we support food businesses to understand their legal obligations through the provision of materials, resources and engagement with subject-matter experts.  “However, we also take enforcement action when a food business is not complying with the law such as issuing closure orders, improvement notices, prohibition orders, right through to prosecution. Our national, European and international networks, such as the International Heads of Food Agencies Forum are important in ensuring ongoing communication between peer organisations as well as building trust that supports our engagement in times of crises.”

Food-safety crises
On average, there are approximately 600-700 food-safety incidents per year; but food-safety-safety crises, thankfully, do not happen very often. when they do, we are prepared, Dr Byrne explains.
“The FSAI has a risk-management team in place, which is working on a 24/7 basis as required by law.  There are a number of protocols that provide a framework for how we deal with food-safety incidents as well as food-safety crises.
“These protocols were developed in collaboration with the food-safety inspectorate and other stakeholders, including Government departments and other State agencies, to ensure we are prepared to manage food incidents and crises when they arise.”
Dr Byrne explains that they are continuously reviewing these protocols and assessing the systems in place to ensure they are fit for purpose: “Every three to four years, we carry out simulation exercises either at a national or European level and use the learnings from these to adapt and evolve our approaches. We also ensure we are connected to our European and international counterparts, so that we gain access early to incidents that are going on in other countries that may impact Ireland. 
“At a European level, as a member of the EU, we are connected to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, which ensures timely and accurate dissemination of information, as well as rapid response to that information.
“At global level, we are the Irish contact point for the FAO/WHO International Food Safety Authorities Network, which facilitates the rapid exchange of information across borders and between members, during hundreds of food-safety events. Our ultimate goal is to protect consumers in Ireland and the consumers of Irish food in 180 markets across the world from risk and these protocols and systems are critical in enabling us to do our job.”

International Heads of Food Agencies Forum – what is it?

Dr Byrne explains: “This is a forum through which the members can share information and exchange ideas/approaches. While the forum has only been up and running since 2020, just pre-Covid-19, relationships within the forum have been strengthened and trust has been built – both key components of being able to deal with crises.
“Our motto in the FSAI is 'build relationships in peacetime, so that you can rely on them when times are difficult'. In addition, we have shared our learnings from how we managed our organisations and control systems during Covid-19; how we assess risk and how we engage with stakeholders during crises.

“Through the forum, the FSAI has shared how we communicate during crises with our counterparts in Singapore for example. Another example is how other regulators are assessing the possible risks associated with novel food ingredients. All of these exchanges provide a learning environment for the members of the forum which lead to a strengthening of the global food system for protecting consumers.
"The importance of this forum was re-reinforced during its recent meeting with two members indicating their intention to host the forum meetings in 2024 and 2025. As one of the founding members of the forum, I am delighted with this because when you start to build networks like this you are never quite sure how they will progress."

The importance of a solid food-safety reputation for our Irish food and drink exporters cannot be overstated: “A recent Eurobarometer survey that surveyed almost 27,000 EU citizens in 27 Member States identified that food safety matters for 50 per cent of European citizens,” says Dr Byrne. “Seven out of 10 citizens recognise the important role that science and scientists play in ensuring food safety.  Eight out of 10 trust scientists and seven out of 10 have trust in national and EU institutions. 
“In Ireland, 47 per cent of consumers surveyed take it for granted that their food is safe and 84 per cent trust the national authorities as sources of information on food risks. This trust is based on a strong system of regulatory controls and transparency regarding reporting of the results of these food-safety-control measures,” says Dr Byrne. This trust resonates beyond Ireland, however, and, abroad, Ireland is seen as having one of the most trusted food-safety-control systems and, by extension, safe and trustworthy food. Dr Byrne explains that this is down to the hard work of the food industry in Ireland which recognises the importance of only placing safe food on the market. “Reputation of any entity, public and private, is hard fought for but easily damaged when the proper action isn’t taken when things go wrong,” she says. “And things do go wrong but Ireland has always taken prompt action and this is recognised internationally. The FSAI’s primary focus on the protection of public health through science-based decision-making is critical in ensuring Ireland’s reputation as a producer of safe food is maintained. But the industry needs to continue to work hard to comply with the law. We encourage companies that are finding it difficult to comply to engage with us and use the resources we make available on our website to gain as deep an understanding as possible of their legal obligations.”

Room to improve

The food supply system is very complex and becoming more complex year on year, says Dr Byrne. So, there is always room, and requirement, for improvement. “Supply chains are interwoven; therefore, traceability of food is critical. Businesses need to fully understand their suppliers and supply chains and if there is a change in those, build those into their food-safety-management systems.” And another area that needs improvement is culture, she says. “We have identified a number of businesses, some through disclosures made to us under the Protected Disclosure legislation, over the last few years where the culture of food safety is not at the standard it should be. We all know the impact of culture on organisational performance and where the culture is not right, issues arise, and this applies to food safety also.” Numerous investigations have revealed where shortcuts have been taken and workarounds have been put in place, some of which raise serious questions over the safety of the food, according to Dr Byrne. “And where we can’t get verification of traceability, for example, we have no other choice but to take the appropriate enforcement action.”
A third area relates to authenticity. Food information must be accurate, clear, and easy to understand for the consumer. It must not be misleading. “A strengthening of the EU food safety control system for the detection of fraudulent and deceptive practice, following the horsemeat scandal, is now in place and the FSAI, along with our counterparts across the EU have structures and systems in place to control this. 

“Food businesses should be assessing the vulnerabilities of their supply chains and taking appropriate action to remove or minimise those vulnerabilities, thereby gaining greater assurance regarding the authenticity of their products." says Dr Byrne.