FOOD SCARES: WHAT THEY ARE AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM
By Eva Perroni
A series of high-profile food-related scares around the globe has drawn attention to the issue of food safety and scandals: from the deliberately undeclared horse meat found in frozen beefburgers sold in several Irish and British supermarkets to the frozen berry recall across Australia and Canada due to hepatitis A contamination. From mad cows to microorganisms, there are many contributing factors that lead to food scares.
As our food system becomes increasingly globalised and industrialised, food products are sourced from all over the world, requiring all kinds of people and technologies to deal with each other in constantly evolving ways, often across great distances. In this system, which privileges cheapness and quantity over sustenance and quality, consumers are increasingly distanced from the physical, social and intellectual origins of their food.
Take for example the egg industry supply chain. It begins in the hatchery where chicks are sorted based on their sex (females kept for laying, male chicks discarded shortly after birth). It moves on to pullet rearing, where chicks are reared until point-of-lay age, usually around 16-18 weeks. Hens of laying age begin producing eggs, which are then graded and sorted according to size. The eggs are then either packed or processed into differing egg products, distributed Australia-wide or exported to overseas markets. Packaged shell eggs or processed egg products are then consigned to wholesale markets for further distribution by wholesale traders, received and used by either food-service operators or merchandised by retailers like supermarkets. Before those eggs end up on your brunch plate or in your refrigerator, they’ve passed through countless hands and crossed many miles. In an ever-expanding food system, a food safety problem created in one place can easily spread to others.
Researchers from the University of Surrey* have recently developed a single, comprehensive and useable categorisation of food scares in the hopes that it will support the development of strategies to tackle the multiple compromises to our food supply. The new categorisation highlights where and how the nature of different types of food scares might arise and overlap. The four categories include biological contamination, physical chemical contamination, willful deception and transparency and awareness issues. Biological contamination includes all scares relating to microorganisms found in the air, food, water, soil, crops and animals, for example, E. coli and Salmonella. Chemical/physical contamination refers to forms of contamination that are not living microorganisms and that should not be present in the supply chain or final product, such as chemicals, antibiotics and hormones. ‘Willful deception’ relates to food scares which have resulted from intentional contamination, such as the Horse Meat Scandal, whereas ‘transparency and awareness issues’ take into account the availability of information for consumers and the coherence and legitimacy of that information.
While this new system of categorisation may help define, locate and tackle food scare issues, the surest way of reducing food scares is to develop more sustainable, cleaner regional food systems and supply chains. With a heavily industrialised food system premised on quantity, speed and ‘efficient’ (a synonym in most cases for cost-cutting) production comes inevitable food-borne risks. Moving toward a healthy, sustainable food system that encourages local production, supports local distribution infrastructures and reduces the number of steps and hands in getting food from farm to fork will help make food more safe, nutritious and accessible. Sustainability and health are two sides of the same food system coin. To reduce your exposure to food contamination, shop for local, fresh, seasonal produce. Better yet, shake the hand that feeds you.
Eva Perroni is an activist-researcher and writer focused on creating a more just and sustainable food system.
*Some information for this article was supplied from the media relations office, the University of Surrey.