Food safety

Technology can back a powerful food safety agency

Technology is going to play an increasingly important role in maintaining food safety standards, and it could play a vital role in a future statutory food safety agency.

This point was made by FairPlay founder Francois Baird in summing up the discussions during the FairPlay/Food for Mzansi food safety webinar last week. The discussion ranged from food safety standards to inspections, testing, tracing and enforcement. 

Watch a recording of the webinar here.

The technology issue was first raised by microbiologist Prof Kris Willems, who said incredibly accurate product tracing was now possible through genotyping, which analyses the genetic make-up of a product or sample. It could trace an E.coli sample to the animal that produced it, or a fish sample to the country from which it came.

Prof Willems’ theme was that hygiene is the basis of food safety. Whether in a home, business or food processing facility, good hygiene practices were a prerequisite for all other food safety measures. 

He said food safety regulations depended on risk analysis, and were a balance between government, scientists and the businesses trying to comply with the regulations. He also noted that over-regulation could kill small businesses and that the EU allowed exemptions for farms producing and selling locally.

Matlou Setati, a food safety executive at the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, said consumers had a right to know where products were sourced and what they contained. She stressed the need for food safety regulations to be followed when thawing and refreezing imported products. “if you miss a step, things can go wrong,” she said.

It was also important to know whether the country had the capability to ensure proper food safety inspections, and how many food products were recalled, and why.

Dr Hein Nel, specialist at the Agency for Food Safety and Quality (AFSQ) said his organisation was involved in the practical side of food safety, and not policy-making or legislation. They dealt with food exports, not imports which were the responsibility of the department of Agriculture.

He believed implementation of food safety regulations in South Africa was comparable with the best in the world, with some deficiencies, particularly in rural abattoirs. He said a risk that was often overlooked was that meat condemned in an inspection was not always destroyed as required, but was somehow returned into the commercial trade.

Summing up, Baird said the theme that had emerged was that South Africa had good regulations but a lot needed to be done to ensure that all food safety elements worked efficiently and optimally.

FairPlay believed the answer was a national statutory food safety agency, properly funded and resourced, and with powers of enforcement.