Cutting salt, sugar and plastics is great. But beware the potential food safety risks

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We all know the amount of salt and sugar in our diet needs to be reduced, but perhaps a forgotten fact is that they have been used as food preservatives for many hundreds of years

I’m often asked: what will be the cause of the next food safety scandal in the UK? Of course the answer is that I’m not sure, and often when scandals break I haven’t really expected them. I have however reluctantly decided to do some crystal ball gazing to undertake some predictions. To try and cover myself I will mention a few different areas that could well do with some attention from both regulators and the food industry.

Perhaps to start with the easy predictions: the unknowns that the great Brexit bust-up will bring. This is in part due to the UK having to move away from the European-wide coordinated approach to food safety, with no indication whatsoever that there will be any investment from the government into filing this void. I am certain that when we depart the EU the UK will be close to the back of a long queue to receive any intelligence or support from Europe about food safety issues.

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Then comes the more difficult and, what will seem to some, rather odd predictions. I’m a huge believer in innovation and when I look at the current drive for innovative thinking in the UK food industry it’s very positive overall. Yet I do wonder: has the impact on food safety been kept front and centre at all times?

We all know the amount of salt and sugar in our diet needs to be reduced – individually and together these ingredients have played a role in some of the huge health issues we face in the UK. They are often added to many processed foods as flavourings, but perhaps a forgotten fact is that they have been used as food preservatives for many hundreds of years.

Do you remember being taught about osmosis in school biology lessons? I might be wrong of course – and a trawl through previous articles in The Grocer would probably show I can be – but I do wonder if the food industry has really thought about the microbiological risks of less salt and sugar in their products. I do recall a few years ago being told about a company that reduced the amount of alcohol (another preservative) in their Christmas puds to reduce costs. The unintended consequence was that the puds became a wonderful breeding ground for fungi and the entire production for that year had to be recalled.

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Another thing to ponder on is perhaps plastics. Since the excellent Blue Planet II exposé of the dreadful impact these petrochemical byproducts have had on our lives and environment, the pressure on the food industry to find replacements has been enormous. So the race is on to achieve this and it seems there is a very impatient public expecting this tomorrow at the latest. I’ve looked at a few of the substitutes now in place and they certainly interest me. The two questions that come to my mind are: has the migration of chemicals present in these materials moving into food really been studied? And, will they really be sufficiently good barriers against the many harmful microorganisms that can cause food poisoning? I’d be very keen to hear if answers to these question are really available.

Overall my view is that food safety isn’t as high on the agenda as it once was. Perhaps this is because of misplaced complacency that all is well, or that food safety is seen as a cost to a business and not a revenue generator. You will never see the word ‘safe’ on a food label – I know this clearly from the very difficult task of trying to get research funding purely on food safety these days. This is not just in the UK – Europe seems to be of the same mindset. I truly hope not, but I do think we will all get a very nasty reminder in the not too distant future that driving innovation is great, but it’s food safety that must be the single most important factor to be understood, maintained and improved if at all possible.

Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast

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