Food safety has never been higher on the international agenda as understanding the impact of what we eat on our health becomes ever more important.

As debates rage about the potential damage caused by the likes of salt and sugar, scientists are also concerned by everything from the capacity for contaminants to get into food to the dangers of criminal fraud and the link between food and germs.

Fresh farmers market fruit and vegetable from above with copy space

Worldwide, the food industry is increasingly effective at guaranteeing the safety of what we eat but there are always risks.  Scientists are playing their part in work to reduce those risks.

One of the major areas for research is the threat posed from food to young people and the United Nations body responsible for setting food safety standards recently adopted guidelines which set out maximum levels of lead in infant formula and arsenic in rice.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization said that no more than 0.01 mg per kg of lead should be permitted in infant formula and no more than 0.2 mg per kg of arsenic permitted in rice.

They say that infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead, suffering adverse health effects to the brain and nervous system.

Often found in the environment, lead can end up in ingredients used in the production of infant formula. Levels can be controlled and monitored by sourcing raw materials from areas where lead is less present.

Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and skin lesions and has been associated with heart disease and diabetes. Ingested arsenic can also severely damage the nervous system and brain.

Like lead, arsenic is found in the environment and is present at high levels in the groundwater and soil in parts of the world. The danger is that it can enter the food chain by being absorbed into crops.

Rice, a major staple food for millions of people, absorbs arsenic more than other crops but, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, the problem can be reduced by improved irrigation and agricultural practices including growing crops in raised beds instead of flooded fields.

No country immune from problems

It’s not just the developing world that causes concerns. According to global food source monitoring company Food Sentry, the US was one of the top ten countries with the most food safety violations in 2013.

Food Sentry recorded more than 3,400 verified violations associated with products exported from 117 countries. At the top of the list was India, with 380 of the incidents identified worldwide. China followed with 340, Mexico with 260, France with 190 and the US with 180. Vietnam, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Turkey and Spain completed the top ten.

The incidents concerned mainly raw or minimally processed foods, including seafood, vegetables, fruits, spices, dairy, meats, grains, and nuts and seeds.

Food Sentry says that more than a third of the problems were caused to ‘excessive or illegal pesticide contamination.’ The next main causes were pathogen contamination and insanitary conditions.

Food Sentry was created by a team of food analysts to protect US consumers and Senior Intelligence Analyst Zak Solomon said: “Food safety violations are nothing new. They’ve just been receiving a lot of attention lately and rightly so. We import from every single one of the countries in the top ten.”

Indeed, the US Food and Drug Administration and the government of Mexico’s National Service for Agro-Alimentary Public Health, Safety and Quality and Federal Commission for the Protection from Sanitary Risks recently agreed a partnership to promote the safety of fresh and minimally-processed agricultural products coming out of Mexico.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. said: “To be successful as regulators, the FDA must continue developing new strategies and partnerships that allow us to more comprehensively and collectively respond to the challenges that come with globalisation. The FDA is working with our Mexican government counterparts as well as stakeholders from industry, commerce, agriculture, and academia to ensure the safety of products for American and Mexican consumers.”

Mexico is the leading exporter of FDA-regulated foods into the United States; leading categories include fresh vegetables ($4.6 billion), fresh fruit excluding bananas ($3.1 billion), wine and beer ($1.9 billion) and snack foods, including chocolate ($1.5 billion).

Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, said: “Food safety partnerships must extend well beyond government so we are engaging the private sector as well because their food safety practices, coupled with government standards, are what make food safe.”

Food fraud a concern

A growing worry for food scientists is fraud which could compromise food chains, and scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland,  recently received £500,000 to investigate the global problem.

The two-year project will investigate vulnerabilities in food supply chains and look at ways to improve consumer trust in food and producers.

Queen’s was awarded one of five grants from the ‘Understanding the Challenges of the Food System’ programme run by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Food Standards Agency, under the Global Food Security initiative.

Professor Chris Elliott and Dr Moira Dean from the Queen’s Institute for Global Food Security and their colleagues from the School of Law & Institute for Study of Conflict Transformation, in collaboration with Dr John Spink from Michigan State University, will undertake the analysis.

Professor Elliott said: “There are a growing number of reports of fraud and criminal activity in global food supply systems. These are causing huge concerns to governmental agencies and to the food industry. Consumers are losing trust in the safety and quality of what they purchase.

“This Queen’s University led study will play a very important role in ascertaining where the major vulnerabilities are and how best to deal with them. Helping to restore consumer trust is a key objective of our work.

“The current food protection systems are not designed to look for the never-ending number of potential adulterants that may show up in the food supply. As criminal activity by design is intended to elude detection, new tools and approaches to the supply chain management are called for.

“This project will explore how other countries deal with issues of food safety and analyse legal law cases which relate to fraud. Based on an assumption that fraudsters will exploit any intelligence gathering system it will also examine current and potential models of data collection and intelligenfruits-and-vegetables-next-to-scientist-using-microscope-1ce sharing and test their vulnerabilities to future fraudulent attacks. This will help to develop a novel data collection sharing system that is more robust and secure.”

Professor Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, said: “We’re delighted to come together with the Food Standards Agency to fund innovative research into important areas which underpin UK food security. The projects that are being funded will deal with priorities such as resilience, safety and security, food price volatility and supply chain management – all of which are recognised as yielding important social science research challenges to be addressed for the mutual benefit of the food industry and consumers alike.”

The dangers posed by food-borne germs

Another big concerns relates to the capacity of meat to harbour germs such as salmonella and the ability of drug treatments to be effective.

That concern was highlighted by a new report published in America that shows that antibiotic resistance in food-borne germs remains a public health threat.,

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year antibiotic-resistant infections from food-borne germs cause 430,000 illnesses in the United States alone.  Salmonella, which comes from food and other sources, causes 100,000 illnesses in the United States each year.

The most recent data, for 2012, showed that, although drug resistant salmonella has decreased during the past ten years and resistance to two important groups of drugs – cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones – remained low, there is still a concern about Salmonella typhi.

The germ causes typhoid fever and the data suggests that resistance to quinolone drugs increased to 68 per cent, causing concerns that one of the common treatments for typhoid fever may not work in many cases.

Also, one in five Salmonella Heidelberg infections was resistant to ceftriaxone, a cephalapsorin drug, This is the same Salmonella serotype that has been linked to recent outbreaks associated with poultry.

Resistance to Ceftriaxone is a problem because it makes severe Salmonella infections harder to treat, especially in children.

Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H, deputy director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, said: “Our latest data show some progress in reducing resistance among some germs that make people sick but, unfortunately, we’re also seeing greater resistance in some pathogens, like certain types of salmonella.

“Infections with antibiotic-resistant germs are often more severe. These data will help doctors prescribe treatments that work and to help CDC and our public health partners identify and stop outbreaks caused by resistant germs faster and protect people’s health.”