The production and processing of food for great numbers of people have features and aspects that could potentially threaten food safety and security. Given the recent food scares in South Africa and abroad, it is important that processors and the public are aware of these factors. Climate change is another cause for concern as extreme weather events threaten on-farm production, and food safety may well be affected by the spread of pathogens due to changing weather patterns.

Changing climate brings risks
Climate change is a major threat to food production and food safety. Droughts and floods have a negative effect on agricultural production systems, while expanding pathogen populations, boosted by higher temperatures, affect food safety.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has listed its concerns on the way climate change threatens agricultural systems in a report titled The future of food and agriculture (2017). These concerns include: Damage and losses to crops; degradation of land, forests, water, fish stocks and other natural resources; declining rates in productivity growth; and added pressure on already fragile agricultural ecosystems and the livelihoods they support.

FAO marks 2030 as a threshold year when food security and human livelihoods will be increasingly affected by climate change impacts. Climate change affects food availability and has adverse impacts on crop yields, fish stocks and animal health. It limits access to food through negative impacts on rural incomes and livelihoods. Climate change is also seen as a significant hunger-risk multiplier and could mean that by 2050, an additional 120 million people will be at risk of undernourishment.

Climate change affects the availability of water. According to a paper titled Climate Change Impacts on Water Availability and Use in the Limpopo River Basin, climate change affects hydrological cycles, alters the amount and timing of river flow, creates higher risks of water shortages and floods, and challenges the coping capacities of existing water infrastructure and management systems.

The higher temperatures and extreme weather events associated with climate change also create a more favourable environment for foodborne pathogens.

Droughts occurring with greater frequency are an aspect of climate change with a profound impact on agriculture.

Foodborne pathogens

The future of food and agriculture cites food safety as a key concern of the food and agricultural industries. Unsafe food remains a major cause of disease and death globally. In 2010, 30 global hazards caused 600 million foodborne illnesses and 420 000 deaths. Foodborne pathogens that cause such illnesses are commonly bacteria, viruses and parasites. Diarrhoeal disease pathogens were responsible for most foodborne illnesses in 2010 and caused 230 000 deaths. The significance aflatoxins play in foodborne diseases is also emphasised in the report.

Threats to Food Safety states that reports on illnesses between 1996 and 2002 showed a decline in several bacterial diseases. Reported incidents of Campylobacter, Yersinia, and Listeria have declined steadily, but no sustained decline appears for other foodborne infections such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), Vibrio and Salmonella. The source of most foodborne disease is faecal contact that frequently occurs at abattoirs and meat packing plants.

The recent, serious Listeria outbreak in South Africa started at a meat processing plant. Laboratories listed 1 049 confirmed cases, reported between 1 January 2017 and 5 June 2018, and 209 people died due to infection. Fruit and vegetables may also come into contact with pathogens through irrigation water; known cases of irrigation water contamination of fruit and vegetables include Listeria on cantaloupes and E. coli on lettuce.

Threats to Food Safety traces the source of bacterial contamination in modern agricultural and food processing systems. Meat production animals may be housed in crowded intensive systems where disease spreads easily. Crowded conditions during long distance transport to abattoirs also increases the risk of disease contact. In packing plants meat from a single infected carcass can contaminate uninfected meat. This may happen, for example, when meat from various sources is mixed to make hamburgers and sausages.

The future of food and agriculture identifies the increasingly interconnected nature of production systems as the threat of foodborne, vector-borne and infectious, zoonotic diseases increases.

Antimicrobial resistance

Threats to Food Safety lists antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as an important player in food safety.  The future of food and agriculture discusses the World Health Organisation’s global action plan aims to spread knowledge of AMR and take steps to reduce its occurrence. AMR could be one of the biggest threats to humanity in the 21st century and could kill more people than cancer by 2050. AMR occurs due to the repeated exposure of low dose antibiotics in meat that has caused humans to become resistant to the healing properties of several antibiotics.

Intensive animal production presents a Catch 22 situation; animals are kept indoors to protect them from disease, but simultaneously disease is spread by keeping many animals in small enclosures. This also leads to increased use of antibiotics and increased AMR, which in turn potentially leads to more serious epidemics of zoonotic diseases and lower success rates for the treatment of a range of infections.

The FAO states in The future of food and agriculture that as low-income countries adopt intensive animal husbandry to increase production the prevalence of pathogens in flocks and herds increases, as does the incidence of foodborne diseases.

Food waste

Although most concerns about food availability focus on food production, few are aware of the food wastage threats. According to The Future of Food and Agriculture, about a third of all food produced is wasted along the food chain. The extent of current food waste is also an indication of the waste of natural resources. Such food systems are unsustainable as valuable natural resources such as land, water and energy are wasted along with agricultural inputs that went into the production of the food.

Waste involves the emission of millions of tons of greenhouse gases (GHG). Future efforts to address climate change will need to find ways to reduce food losses and waste. Because food production is responsible for a large share of GHG emissions, reducing food losses and waste contributes to climate change mitigation. At the same time, because climate change threatens food production in many food insecure areas, reducing food losses and waste can be an important part of climate change adaptation strategies.

The high demand for blemish free food is a major contributor to food waste.

Food waste also translates into economic losses for farmers and other stakeholders within the food value chain. This leads to higher food prices for consumers. Reducing food losses and waste would increase the supply of available food and strengthen global food security. The Future of Food and Agriculture cites supermarket practices as one of the leading causes of food waste, due to the high food safety and quality standards they impose. This is often caused by consumer demand for blemish-free food.

Changing food trends

While many factors contribute to foodborne illnesses, consumers themselves may cause food safety risks with new diet and lifestyle trends. Both The Future of food and agriculture and Threats to Food Safety cite global changes in dietary patterns around the world as having dire consequences for public health. For example, with an increase in health awareness, people are eating more raw fruit and vegetables. Some even opt for a completely raw diet, no longer consuming cooked food at all. This means that harmful bacteria that would have been killed during the cooking process, survives.

A higher demand for fresh fruit and vegetables often means that supermarkets rely on imports for off-season produce. These are shipped from countries that may lack adequate sanitation regulations. Another factor that has shown an increase in foodborne illnesses is the organic produce trend. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, a salmonella outbreak in that country in 2016 was linked to a line of raw and organic food products. The popularity of uncooked fish in sushi, raw oysters, rare tuna steaks and more recently, rare chicken, also raises the risk of contracting foodborne diseases.

Traditional and trendy cuisine that involves the consumption of raw foods, such as the raw tuna eaten in sashimi, may contribute to the spread of foodborne pathogens.

Other trends, such as drinking raw water and milk, have also contributed to food safety concerns. A preference for unfiltered, unsterilised and untreated water has been surfacing in the past few years. Raw water is thought to be less contaminated by chemicals as well as containing higher amounts of minerals and probiotics. Raw dairy has also become popular again. Unpasteurised milk is thought to be more natural and contains more of the healthy probiotics and enzymes needed to digest it. This does, however, bring back the high risk of foodborne illnesses and zoonotic diseases that spread from animals to humans. In a recent case (December 2018) a resident of New York was diagnosed with Brucellosis contracted from raw milk. Brucellosis is a very serious zoonotic disease that can spread from animals to humans if milk is not pasteurised.

Changing lifestyles also play an important role. With today’s fast-paced lifestyle, consumers want to cook food faster; this may lead to undercooked food being served. Risks are increased as fast food joints and restaurants become more popular than eating at home. Food delivery services further introduce new risks, such as a decline in food quality and food being left in the delivery vehicle for a long time.

Similarly, pre-cut fresh fruit and vegetables have become popular convenience products. According to an article published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, pre-cut produce has a higher microbial risk than whole produce. Meal kits present a similar problem. Getting ready-to-cook meal kits delivered at your doorstep could be more dangerous than it is convenient. According to Food Safety News, almost half of these kits have been found to arrive at temperatures that could make the food unsafe to eat.

Another food trend with potential dangers is that of ‘foraging’, where people harvest food from nature. Uninformed foragers could easily poison themselves. According to BuzzFeed News, a foraging-based cookbook written by an Instagram influencer was recently recalled by the publisher after some of the recipes were found to be dangerous. – Ursula Human, FarmBiz