Welcome to the new normal in food safety

BY SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS

Food traceability – a powerful tool to mitigate risks across food supply chains – does not guarantee food safety and integrity.

Even so, the challenge of tracking food products and ingredients upstream and downstream touches on the core of what is required to manage risks posed by the new normal in the business of food and agriculture.

The new normal presents a number of fascinating issues to contend with, among them: designing comprehensive strategies in the field to effectively cope with climate change and the question of economic trends, subsidies and currency wars, as well as ever changing federal regulations on food packaging, labeling, and safety and trade negotiations.

None of these factors can ever be controlled by farmers or corporations, insofar as they create tremendous volatility in the marketplace, rendering predictability a rare commodity in decision-making.

The politics of food is also at the forefront of agribusiness and food safety.

Food, agriculture and policy have never been mutually exclusive entities, and companies are now compelled to appreciate how one variable can have a significant effect on another, while worrying about the next quarter.

More consumers are now eating with a conscience, and as such are looking for fair trade products, and organic and locally-sourced foods and ingredients.

The ethical treatment of animals has also caught the attention of executives in the field. To complicate things further, the global food security agenda is also exercising some pressure on modern food systems.

The objective of keeping input costs down and profit margins up is no longer enough to deal with these problems. In food production, we have now entered the era of sound partnerships, efficient networks and global outreach.

The new normal in food and agriculture will demand more collaboration between stakeholders. Competing businesses will need to share data and costs, as well as build strategies set on converging interests. In the end, effective food traceability methods will rely heavily on increased teamwork amongst former rivals.

Our food safety agenda is affected by all of these shifts.

The same can be said of food systems themselves, which are also being fundamentally challenged.

Over the last few years, Canada has witnessed, per year, over 2,700 food safety investigations, and over 250 food recalls.

Indeed, over the past four years, the number of food recalls has increased by more than 200% and do not take into consideration the number of unreported incidences. These statistics clearly indicate how different our approach to risk management must be now.

We need to decide how to monitor risk. But what we gain in food surveillance, we may lose in food distribution efficiencies. In other words, more food safety regulations and food traceability may lead to a rise in the price of food. Nevertheless, food traceability should remain a priority for our country. We risk too much by ignoring the potential consequences.

Until about 2009, we lived in the era of crises in food safety, including mad cow, salmonella, botulism, listeria and e.coli. We focused more on managing fears than managing risks; politics continually trumped economics.

From 2009 to 2012, we witnessed a developing synergy between industry and government, health and agriculture that remains ongoing.

Today, we live at the dawn of the era of accountability in food systems.

Given governments’ limited capacity to create new food safety programs, the industry is now compelled to become more accountable to the government. But we also need to find ways to make government more accountable to the public. Most importantly, however, we need to make the industry more accountable to itself, which is why food traceability is imperative for the future of food safety systems.

Indeed, our objective should be to trace and track products and ingredients around the world, in real-time, connecting both ends of the food safety continuum.

In light of the European horsemeat scandal, food traceability is also now considered an ideal mechanism to safeguard consumer trust. For years, food traceability has been almost synonymous with food safety. But the tides of consumer expectation are rising rapidly, and we should prepare to manage and direct that flood.

While the system has solved many aspects of traceability, significant challenges remain to provide cost effective protocols for market assurance, and product improvement. Based on economics alone, the time to improve our systems will be set by consumers, and nobody else.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph. His column is distributed through Troy Media.

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