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Food recalls in the UK

In recent years, we have become more aware of food recalls and their effects as a result of the increase in food standards and consumer expectations.

Figures from the UK’s Food Standards Agency show a 28% increase in allergy alerts and a 52% increase in food alerts in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland just in the 2018-19 financial year.

However, a foodmanufacture.co.uk article titled ‘Rise of the recall’ notes that this rise is reflected by a global trend.

Within Q1 of 2019, food and drink recalls rose by 7.1%, the third largest quarter in the history of the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

These statistics certainly appear to be a cause for alarm. However, in an interview with Time magazine, Matt Stasiewicz, an assistant professor of applied food safety at the University of Illinois, states this may not be the case.

Even though recalls are getting more common, Stasiewicz says that doesn’t automatically mean more pathogens are ending up in the food supply, since “the vast majority” of recalls are precautionary and “not linked to any illness”.

The role of Regulatory changes in the rise of food recalls

The Food Safety Act 1990 for England, Scotland and Wales provides the framework for all food legislation within these nations and states that the main responsibilities for food businesses are to ensure:

  • “Businesses do not include anything in food, remove anything from food or treat food in any way which means it would be damaging to the health of people eating it
  • The food businesses serve or sell is of the nature, substance, or quality which consumers would expect
  • The food is labelled, advertised and presented in a way that is not false or misleading”

The Food Safety Order 1991 for Northern Ireland is a similar document with very similar aims outlined as those above.

With maximum penalties for failure to comply with the regulations including two years’ imprisonment, some experts feel that the increase in food recalls may be rooted in more comprehensive or conservative enforcement or self-policing as precautionary measures.

Better surveillance technologies

It is possible that food contamination incidents are not more frequent, but rather, the industry may now be better at detection and traceback of food contaminants, so more incidents are reported and we see more food recalls.

Advancements in technology have enabled such detection.

One such innovation of note is Whole Genome Sequencing which can reveal the complete DNA composition of an organism. A report from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) explains:

“This means that we can look at the differences between individual bacterial and viral strains with a precision that was not previously possible or practical; and this ability is transforming, among other things, the investigation of food borne disease outbreaks.”

The report refers to an outbreak of Salmonella in 2014, which was analysed by the FSA using traditional techniques to establish the strain of the infection.

Further analysis then allowed for the region of origin to be identified and, in turn, the exact cause of the outbreak, which was identified as a German egg producer.

An additional shift that has reaped traceback benefits are the growth of new payment methods and sales and delivery channels.

Consumer conveniences including food delivery services via apps, loyalty cards, credit cards, stored value cards, and other data-rich mechanisms all support more effective investigations by regulators.

Clearly, it should be considered that new recalls identified through these mechanisms may be revealing issues not previously discovered and may not reflect an actual increase in contamination incidents, but rather an increase in detection and measurement.

Trends in food production

Today’s food systems are diverse and complex, involving everything from subsistence farming to multi-national food companies.

Food production is increasingly industrialised, globalised, and inter-connected. And the movement of food and food ingredients includes animals, plants, minerals, and vitamins and a multitude of intermediary products, both plant and animal based.

Therefore, with more touchpoints in the complex network of our modern food delivery ecosystem, more opportunities for food contamination occur.

The quantity and volume of factory farms and meat production facilities are growing, which may be a contributing factor to food safety issues as well.

As more animals pass through any one facility, the more chances there are for the spread of pathogens. The impact of a problem originating with a large-scale facility can be enormous.

On the other hand, some argue that the corporations running these large facilities have the resources and legal impetus to trigger a recall, but artisanal and local may not.

Another contributor is farms which grow produce as well as housing livestock. Cross-contamination from animal manure and runoff can cause pathogens like E. coli to spread to fruits and vegetables. Some experts suspect this production style may be shifting the source of food-borne illness outbreaks toward leafy greens and other vegetables.

The shift towards more prepared foods is another change that increases food safety risk. The food production industry transformed from a supply-focused to a demand-driven industry in the 20th century. The prevalence of a fast-paced lifestyle, especially in urban areas has resulted in strong demand for prepared foods and meals ready to eat.

In the UK, 88% of adults eat ready meals or ready-to-cook foods, and the market is currently worth around £3.9 billion. For context, the retail egg market has a value of just over £1 billion.

Although there has been a small decline in the ready meal market in the last few years, plant-based ready meal options are growing in demand and will potentially result in further growth of the market overall in coming years.

This ready-to-eat approach to food products has many more touchpoints than a raw ingredient approach, resulting in an increased opportunity for contamination.

A safe food supply is the goal

Though there may be a multitude of reasons for the rise of food recalls – whether it’s an improvement in our ability to identify issues or if the contamination problem is worsening – ultimately, the focus for the food industry and their suppliers, vendors, and service providers, along with government regulators should be focused on delivering safe, uncontaminated food to consumers.

In the UK, the FSA and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) have come together to fund six projects – awarding a total of £200,000 – “to bring the public and researchers together to investigate food standards challenges”.

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