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Food Security: Overcoming Risks in the Food Supply Chain

March 26, 2015


Consumers in the developed world have come to expect supermarkets to offer all varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year. That means, of course, that those items are being sourced from geographic locations in which they can be grown when they are locally out of season. When food products are purchased, consumers rely on supermarket chains and their suppliers to ensure that the food is safe to eat. Sometimes the food isn’t safe and that’s why food safety has become a growing issue. It should come as no surprise that the longer and more complex the food supply chain is the greater the risk that the foods involved could have safety issues. Gurjit Degun (@gurjitdegun) reports, “Food security is being compromised by long global supply chains leading to ‘recall sprawl,’ according to Stericycle Expert Solutions.”[1] That conclusion was contained in the second quarter 2014 Stericycle European Recall and Notification Index that deals with recall trends in a number of commercial sectors. The Index notes, “Food recalls are the ones that scare the public.” The report indicates that the Food sector is split into three categories: Food (for human consumption); Feed (for animal consumption); and Food Contact Materials (largely packaging and production equipment). Contamination can occur in each of these sectors presenting different risks to food security. The report indicates that “long supply chains lead to variations in standards. As one issue is resolved in one area, another one arises somewhere else.” It also indicates that even though there are quarterly fluctuations in recalls, there are similarities from quarter to quarter. As an example, the reported noted that seven of the top eight recall groups shown in the graphic below were also in the top groups the quarter before.



The report notes, “Fruit and vegetables are the silverback of the recall and notification world. They’re the biggest and there’s no budging them from the top spot. The very nature of perishables of this kind dictates that products are consistently at risk. Any mistake in pesticide or fertilizer use leads to an automatic recall or notification.” Serban Teodoresco, Global Managing Director of NSF International’s consulting group, told Joe Whitworth that unintentional contamination was not the only risk facing today’s food supply chain. He told Whitworth, “The food industry needs to adapt to take into consideration intentional contamination in the supply chain.”[2] Teodoresco explained:

“Food supply chain controls were brought in from the perspective that something might happen by accident. Intentional events, such as food fraud and substitution, are becoming more appealing. The food industry faces pressure on margins, including in raw materials, to maintain profits. Government and industry standards are higher and there is higher pressure to provide the right food in terms of nutrition and functional food while getting that return on investment.”

Teodoresco also pointed to longer supply chains as being a problem. “Raw materials are being sourced from further away,” he told Whitworth, “so the supply chain is stretching, which is increasing risk to business and growing complexity.” That conclusion coincides with the conclusion from the Stericycle Expert Solutions report, which stated, “The length of the supply chain for some of these food goods cannot be overlooked, as it has a significant impact on the safety of the products being transported.” The question, of course, is: “What can be done to solve the challenge of distance?” The Stericycle Expert Solutions report suggests that packaging has an important role to play. “Vacuum Skin Packaging (VSP) and Carbon Monoxide Modified Atmosphere Packaging (CO-MAP) can reduce the risks to consumers,” the report states. The report also notes that traceability is essential. “To execute [traceability] across longer distances requires the combination of technology, database management and practice withdrawals,” the report states. “Companies must record and communicate information regarding process sourcing, processing, transportation and storage throughout the supply chain.”


Another approach to traceability is being undertaken by IBM and the food conglomerate Mars. “IBM is teaming up with food conglomerate Mars to study, and hopefully protect, citizens from foodborne illnesses by sequencing the genes of the tiny organisms that populate our food chains. Consisting of just the two companies right now but expected to grow, the effort is being called, aptly, the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain.”[3] The IBM site notes:

“In a novel large-scale experiment between IBM and Mars, Inc., researchers are harvesting and sequencing the DNA and RNA of simple food samples to determine where anomaly and mutations occur when paired with common organisms or genes, toxins, and heavy metals. Resulting in a ‘microbial baseline,’ or a benchmark representing normal microbe communities, the index produced from this study will be a gold standard for food and health officials globally to understand what triggers contamination and the spread of disease. … The research environment uniquely allows experts from both parties to integrate data from multiple sources, and to use state of the art bioinformatic algorithms to identify the active genes and metabolic processes in the food ingredients. This allows for identification of anomalies with speed and precision, and to design new tests and protocols for different food and health processes. Minimizing contaminated food outbreaks is a big public health issue. In the U.S. alone, one in six people are affected by food-borne diseases each year. That results in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and $9 billion in medical costs. Add to that another $75 billion annually in contaminated food that has to be recalled and thrown away. As the food supply chain becomes more global and complex, food safety issues will continue to increase until there are new scientific methods to mitigate the safety hazards within the system.”

Some people may think that tracing food from farm to fork should be an easy matter. It’s not. It gets complicated as crops from different suppliers are mixed together or as raw materials pass through the hands of brokers. Tom Bawden (@BawdenTom) recently reported, for example, how difficult it is to trace spices through the supply chain.[4] He reports:

“The worldwide trails that transport the likes of cumin and paprika — now found to contain undeclared peanuts and almonds in many cases — from the field to the fork is so labyrinthine it’s actually extremely difficult to solve, experts warn. The more intermediaries the spices pass through, the more opportunity there is for tampering and the harder it is to find the culprit. And there is no shortage of middle men. ‘The spice chain is long and complex. It can be very difficult to trace back further than one or two levels,’ said Steve Taylor, a co-founder of the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. Government investigators, food producers and retailers across North America, Europe and India are testing spiced dishes for nut contamination — which could put millions of allergy sufferers at risk of illness or even death.”

The battle to keep the food chain safe is never ending. Fortunately, as Roseanna Wheeler, from KaTom Restaurant Supply, Inc., pointed out to me, there are a lot of individuals and agencies actively involved in trying to keep the food supply chain safe. Click on the KaTom link and you will find a lot of facts and figures about food safety that Wheeler and the KaTom team have put together. It’s a great resource.


[1] Gurjit Degun, “Longer global supply chains damaging food safety,” Supply Management, 7 September 2014.
[2] Serban Teodoresco, “Food industry must consider intentional contamination,” FoodQuality News, 31 October 2014.
[3] Derrick Harris, “IBM wants to protect our food by sequencing its supply chains,” Gigaom, 29 January 2015.
[4] Tom Bawden, “The nuts-for-spices crisis: How a complex supply chain makes tracing dodgy food difficult,” The Independent, 20 February 2015.

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