At this time of year, a quick review of what has gone by and what might be ahead seems in order. I will concentrate my thoughts on two key topics that I spend most of my time thinking about and working on: food safety and food fraud.
While no doubt foodborne pathogens will make more people ill and cause more fatalities than any other food safety issue, it has not been a headline-grabber in the UK, despite some serious cases occurring – most notably with salmonella.
Instead, it’s the substantial problems with food allergens that really hit the headlines this year. The revelations of deaths of young people who purchased food in good faith and were let down by inadequate control systems resonated with many as something that must be dealt with.
I fully believe that food hygiene and food allergy control must be rolled into a single system of monitoring and enforcement. Of course a massive challenge for local authorities and the Food Standards Agency, and we cannot sit back and think this is all there is to sort out. I am firmly of the belief that a massive change in the culture of many food businesses, particularly in the food service sector, is required. As always I’m not only happy to point out issues but also to help where I can.
My other topic of great interest is food fraud. Just a few days ago I attended the annual meeting of the Food Industry Intelligence Network. The membership now includes over 30 of the UK’s largest food retail, processing and service companies with a combined turnover of over £115bn, and even more importantly a group of companies clearly dedicated to doing the right thing. Very soon a FIIN website will be appearing. I have said before and will repeat: I do not know of any similar organisation anywhere in the world.
Also this year, the National Food Crime Unit has the approval and has received funding to move onto ‘Phase 2’ – to investigate as well as collect intelligence. There is no doubt the FIIN and the NFCU working together puts the UK in a very strong position to fight the growing peril of organised crime penetrating food industries globally.
However, before everyone takes a sigh of relief there are a number of potentially dangerous issues looming. Where we are now with Brexit is anyone’s guess (including our government unfortunately). And with uncertainty comes massive opportunities, particularly for those wishing to exploit our national food system, so my dusty and cracked crystal ball is flashing red on this one.
When I look at the UK food system I see an awful lot of people doing a very good job to feed us every day of every week in a safe and genuine manner.
However, as I have pointed out before, I see a major weakness which seems to be getting progressively worse. This is the smaller food businesses who get supplied by medium and small-sized companies. There is no FIIN to look after them, the local authorities have very little funding to exert the necessary levels of monitoring and surveillance needed, and I do believe the issues of food safety and fraud in this part of our food system are substantial and growing.
So if I am to predict something for 2019, it is this: there will be a major incident relating to this sector. I do hope I am wrong and this will be because this extreme vulnerability in the UK food system will be identified and acknowledged by those with much greater abilities and resources to do something about it.
Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast