Food Safety Conference 2018 | © Dr. Sabine Bonneck

Food safety in the shadow of the Brexit

British food sector on the brink of change

At the Food Safety Conference in Birmingham on 21 June 2018 the speakers discussed technical and political aspects of food safety. The focus was on the approaching Brexit. Sue Davis of the consumer protection organisation Which? presented survey results according to which the British want to maintain the high EU standards for food. At the same time they are confident that this will succeed despite Brexit. Andy Morling, head of the recently with an additional budget funded National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), has not yet been able to assess the extent to which Brexit will affect the nature and extent of food fraud. With his department, unique in the international government landscape, he sees the UK as the world leader in the fight against food fraud. Nevertheless, he is not satisfied because food manufacturers do not cooperate sufficiently.

Highway to Health

The British government is also investing more in research. Mark Webber reported on the new department that the Quadram Institute will soon open in Norwich. We are getting older and older, and the question is how we can stay as healthy as possible in old age and maintain a high quality of life. In the most modern research centre in the kingdom, scientists conduct research at the interface between food science, intestinal biology and health in order to find the “Highway to Health”.

Blockchain: The Big Unknown

Rod Addy, editor-in-chief of Food Manufacture and host of the conference, presented the results of reader surveys. The majority of readers, mainly decision-makers in the food industry, are prepared for a product recall and state that they will not compromise on prevention in favour of financial gains or time savings. More than two-thirds of respondents see food fraud as an increasing problem in the UK. Only a minority believes that Blockchain technology can help meet food safety standards. This does not mean that one is sceptical about Blockchain – half of the respondents cannot yet assess the benefits of Blockchain. The NFCU is highly regarded by the readers of Food Manufacture. If their company reported an incident to the Special Forces, the majority would not worry that the NFCU did not maintain its anonymity.

Impact of Brexit

Nils Bing, partner at the law firm DWF, dealt with legal aspects in connection with Brexit. He identified the availability of labour, new regulations and border controls as the three most important problem areas. 40% of employees in the food industry come from the rest of Europe. Many people are already leaving the kingdom because they no longer feel welcome after voting for the Brexite. Perhaps this is just the beginning of a major wave of migration: experts estimate that there will soon no longer be enough workers available in the food sector and in hotel and catering industries.

95% of food legislation comes from Brussels. After Brexit, the British must have found a replacement for around 7,000 regulations. In concrete terms, this means that they have to work through, renegotiate and adopt each individual provision, which is hardly feasible given the tight time horizon. Bings considers it more realistic to pass a law according to which the current regulations will continue unchanged for the time being. This would allow sufficient time to check all regulations, modify them if necessary and transfer them to post-Brexit law.

Border control cuts inevitable

The future organisation of border controls is also high on the agenda. Bings cited as an example the border traffic with Ireland, the most important trading partner of the British. Trucks that would line up to form a 6 km long queue cross the border to their little neighbour every day. These would have to be checked in the near future. Bings used the example of the border crossing in Dover to illustrate how much effort this would entail. If only 2 additional minutes per truck were spent on checks, a traffic jam of almost 30 kilometres would occur within 12 hours. Products of animal origin can only be inspected at certain points of entry anyway. Bings considers the reduction of controls a realistic option, as the British will hardly be able to check every imported food.

The contractual relations between Great Britain, South Korea and Canada can continue unchanged. The British must renegotiate all other relations, including those with countries associated with the EU, such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, before they become a third-country from 2020.

Allergen management is becoming more complex

Barbara Hirst of Reading Scientific Ltd. explained the high importance that the management of allergens has for food manufacturers. Parts of the population are allergic to certain components of a product, e.g. gluten or peanuts. Every year ten people die in Great Britain from their allergic reactions after eating a food. 5,000 people have to be treated in hospital. Hirst reported an increase in “free from” products. The reason, however, is not the increased prevalence of allergies, but lifestyle decisions that people are increasingly orienting their eating habits towards.

In the EU it is mandatory to label 14 allergens. The incorrect labelling of allergens leads to a considerable proportion of recalls. For example, a manufacturer had to retrieve its cashew nut cream because it contained not only “traces” of peanuts and sesame, but significantly larger quantities. On average, costs of GBP 650,000 to 1 million are incurred per callback. It is becoming increasingly difficult for manufacturers to manage their range of “free from” products. They need suitable production facilities for production and must, for example, ensure that they select laboratories equipped for the analyses in question.

Blockchain facilitates traceability

Loretis Alisauskas from IBM tried to bring more clarity to the topic of blockchain. Blockchain means that all participants feed data into a common database. Blockchain can then be used to trace supply chains. Using Walmart as an example, Alisauskas illustrated that it takes the supermarket chain nearly 7 days to assign a single mango to a particular farmer using the conventional method, based on a mixture of digital data and documents in paper form. With the help of blockchain Walmart can get this information within 2.2 seconds.Blockchain brings benefits not only to all stations in the supply chain, but also to public health. For example, it took more than 6 years to locate a supplier who delivered a batch of spinach on a specific day in 2006. The spinach was contaminated with E.coli. It was delivered to various parts of the United States and resulted in three death cases. Such incidents could be cleared up more easily in the future.

Industry network identifies supply chain risks

Richard Barnes from meat producer ABP finally presented the Food Industry Information Network (FIIN). FIIN is a consortium of 31 companies that have been exchanging analytical data in anonymized form since 2015. The evaluation of this data allows short-term conclusions to be drawn about risks for the supply chain. For example, if a convenience food manufacturer finds that a particular spice is frequently adulterated, the other members of the network can react immediately and control their supply chain more strictly. Thanks to the extensive database, the network has a comprehensive overview of the relevant threats. A working group develops proposals to reduce the risks involved.

Successful change only through cooperation

The moderator Steven Walker, Director of Campden BRI, summed up the conference. Food safety is an important issue and all stakeholders must try to keep up to date. Especially in these times when the British food sector is facing a serious upheaval. Events such as this conference are important for Walker to ensure that stakeholders regularly exchange views. Here they can become aware that they share the same agenda and should work together more closely to achieve the goals. No single company can cope with the impending upheaval on its own.

Dr. Sabine Bonneck