State of food safety today, an interview with Dr. Ron Wacker
The globalisation of food chains and suppliers has increased the challenges of producing food products that are safe to consume, as well as the potential dangers from local food contaminants spreading around the world. Today, food safety is truly a global concern, and TÜV SÜD is committed to helping food suppliers and producers worldwide deliver safe food products to their customers.
Dr. Ron Wacker, TÜV SÜD’s Global Manager of Food, Health and Beauty, has worked on food safety issues and analytics since 2000. Wacker recently spoke with Food & Health E-ssentials about how the globalisation of the food industry has increased the complexity of ensuring food safety, and TÜV SÜD’s central role in food safety testing and certification programs.
Food & Health E-ssentials: From your perspective, how have the challenges of ensuring food safety changed over the past decade?
Dr. Ron Wacker: With the globalised sourcing of food today, the challenges of ensuring food safety have gone international. Today, processed food can easily have ingredients from 5-10 different countries, significantly enlarging the scope of risks that we have to take into account in our evaluation. And, new technologies and advanced analytical tools now allow us to test for chemicals and substances that we didn’t even think about 10 years ago.
F&HE: The issue of food safety is also certainly a large concern in developing countries and regions. How do the efforts in industrialised countries to ensure food safety help elevate the safety of food elsewhere in the world?
RW: Modern consumers are more aware of food safety issues than ever. Of course, global media helps to quickly spread news and information about unsafe foods. But it also helps us to understand and question the differences between countries regarding food safety regulation. Consumers rightfully ask why they should accept food safety standards in their countries that are less rigorous than those that apply to food products sold in the U.S. or the European Union. This leads government regulators to seek ways to strengthen their own food safety systems, thereby raising the level of food safety around the world.
F&HE: An emerging concern related to the safety of food has to do with food fraud, in which a food product or ingredient of lesser quality is substituted for that noted on the product label. How big is the problem of food fraud, and how can consumers verify the integrity of the food products they purchase?
RW: Actually, food fraud is not new. For example, the German Beer Purity Law was established back in 1516 to prevent fraudulent beer products from reaching the market. But the scope of the problem today is significant. Earlier this year, Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, seized more than 2500 tons of counterfeit or fraudulently labelled food products around the world as part of its Operation Opson IV, a global enforcement effort that involved police, customs officials and national regulatory bodies in 47 different countries. That’s why testing, certification and verification of food safety by independent testing agencies is so important.
F&HE: There is increased consumer interest in potential safety concerns surrounding the consumption of genetically-modified foods. How are food producers and suppliers addressing these concerns?
RW: From my perspective, the primary issue is the right of consumers to know whether the foods that they eat include ingredients that have been genetically modified. This comes down to the issue of proper labelling, and jurisdictions around the world are making strides in this area to strengthen labelling requirements to address consumer concerns. In the meantime, ahead of increased regulation in this area, food producers and suppliers can initiate their own efforts to improve food labelling practices to provide consumers with the information that they need to make informed choices.
F&HE: Food safety standards and practices have been largely developed in cooperation with industry. What role do regional and local food regulations play in food safety?
RW: Regional and local food regulations represent the baseline standard for food safety. But, as noted earlier, food safety regulations can vary from country to country. Among global food companies, best practices dictate adherence to company food safety requirements that are generally more stringent than those applicable in any singlel jurisdiction. That approach not only helps to strengthen overall food safety but can also serve to reduce compliance efforts and ease market access.
F&HE: Although food safety programs are being widely adopted by the industry, some producers question the investment of time and money required to achieve food safety certification. Why is certification so important, and what factors should producers consider?
RW: Actually, many of the food safety certification schemes in use today were originally established with industry involvement and/or guidance, as part of an overall effort to provide suppliers with a harmonized set of requirements that would help to reduce the time and investment required. The debate today about food safety certification schemes is more about whether multiple, often conflicting, approaches are still needed, or if a single scheme would be sufficient. The food industry’s Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), is currently working to address this very question.
F&HE: Looking ahead, what are the biggest challenges we face in our efforts to provide the world’s population with safe food?
RW: In my view, the fact that so many countries have already implemented strict food safety laws means that safe food is already widely available. But, to be sure, there are still areas for improvement. Concerns related to chemical and biological contamination remain, and are made more challenging due to complex supply chains and inadequate transparency and traceability practices throughout. And, unlike 30 years ago, when a contamination incident was largely contained to a local area, the consequences are significantly greater in a global marketplace, where a single contaminated product can affect thousands of people in multiple countries.
F&HE: In the face of these issues, how is TÜV SÜD positioned to help food producers and suppliers ensure the safety of food for consumers?
RW: With our international network of food testing laboratories, inspectors and auditors, we can work with food producers and retailers to help keep the supply chain safe, regardless of where their operations are located. Food products can be inspected and tested at various points along the supply chain, from the country of origin to the consumer. And food production facilities can be certified for compliance with all internationally-accepted food safety requirements and standards. Finally, the TÜV SÜD brand is globally-recognized, providing industry and consumers alike with assurances regarding the safety of their food products.