Efforts to support food safety in South Africa received a significant boost when Stellenbosch University (SU), in conjunction with Tiger Brands, launched the on-campus Centre for Food Safety (CFS).

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This new centre, the first of its kind in the country, will be a unique applied food science research consortium comprised of scientists working at SU and in the food industry. The centre will conduct research on food safety, provide expert advice to the industry, policymakers and other stakeholders, and promote consumer awareness.

The centre will be situated in SU’s Department of Food Science in the Faculty of AgriSciences, and managed independently by the university. Tiger Brands, one of the founding members, has given R10 million to help establish the centre.

The centre’s advisory board consists of renowned international scientists, including Prof. Wilhelm Holzapfel, president of the International Committee on Food Microbiology and Hygiene, Prof. Mieke Uyttendaele from the Department of Food Safety and Food Quality at Ghent University in Belgium and Prof. Stephen Forsythe, former professor of microbiology at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.

“Food safety is everyone’s responsibility,” Prof. Pieter Gouws, acting director of the CFS stated at the launch of the centre. “We want to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to develop and exchange knowledge, experience and expertise in food safety, food defence and food processing.” The aim is to provide a blueprint for improved food safety assurance in South Africa, he explained.

In his keynote address, Prof. Pier Sandro Cocconcelli, an expert in food microbiology from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Italy reported on global food safety trends, declaring it a phenomenon that ought to be managed on a global scale. “We need food safety standards and regulations that are clear and we need to consider economic impacts and trade issues. We also need to promote long-term thinking among risk managers and policymakers.”

According to Lawrence MacDougall, CEO of Tiger Brands, “food safety is an essential public health issue. With the global increase in the prevalence of foodborne diseases, science-based food controls are essential for the protection of food products.”

MacDougall emphasised that improving South Africa’s food management system remains crucial to Tiger Brands. He envisions the CFS playing a pivotal role in driving food safety forward across the industry through means of collaboration. “This is far bigger than Tiger Brands – it is a national imperative,” he added.

According to SU’s rector, Prof. Wim de Villiers, establishing the centre is in line with Maties’ vision of being innovative and conducting world-class research in the service of society. “SU wants to help overcome food safety issues by doing research for impact in collaboration with others,” he said. “We are tackling a grand challenge to society.”

“After the recent listeriosis outbreak in South Africa, it is clear that the CFS is an absolute necessity,” said Gouws. “The outbreak, considered the worst of its kind in South Africa so far, left many consumers worried and confused. It has also raised questions about regulatory oversight, as well as standards in the local industry. There is an urgent need for a food safety authority to help protect citizens’ health and food security. Access to trusted, independent and credible food safety research, knowledge and advice remains critical. “We need to ensure that the science we do translates into impact.”

The consequences of a failed food safety system are extremely costly, according to Prof. Gunnar Sigge, chairman of the Department of Food Science. “In a developing country such as South Africa, food safety is an important way to ensure that everyone has access to enough food. With the worldwide increase in food-related diseases, developing countries bear the most significant burden.” He stated that Africa has the highest global incidence of food-related diseases and associated deaths across all age groups.

“A food safety revolution is needed,” Gouws asserted. “Risks related to food safety must be scientifically evaluated, and need input from a range of experts. There is also a need for practical communication about food safety based on the best available science.” There is much misinformation out there, affecting food producers and consumers alike. “Science-based food controls are essential for the protection of food products,” he said.

Dr. Khotso Mokhele, chairman of Tiger Brands described the recent listeriosis crisis as “a painful reminder” that even robust and stringent safety standards need improvement. “A more collaborative approach is necessary across industry, government and academia to empower consumers and improve efforts to ensure food safety. We need adequate standards and (need) to galvanise our efforts to strengthen our food system.”

The CFS is to serve as a hub for such collaborative efforts at promoting food safety and innovation. “This centre has the potential to be a gamechanger for food safety,” Mokhele concluded. – Stellenbosch University