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FOOD SAFETY: Nestlé has an early warning system to help it pinpoint signals that may develop into issues
“I don’t think most people are aware of the amount of work that goes into ensuring that the food they eat is safe,” says John O’Brien, Head of the Food Safety and Integrity Research Programme at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“It’s only when something goes wrong that they sit up and take notice.”
Things went badly wrong in Japan in March 2011, when the country was hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that destabilised its nuclear power station in Fukushima.
“The earthquake happened on a Friday and by Monday it was clear there was a serious nuclear emergency,” says John.
“Immediately, we ordered radiometric equipment and deployed new methods and tools in our manufacturing facilities near the affected area to monitor for radioactivity.
“Within two weeks we were able to operate what we call a ‘positive release system’, meaning our products were safe for consumption and could leave the factory.”
The ability to react quickly to unforeseen events is a vital part of ensuring food safety.
It’s why Nestlé keeps gamma counters in strategic locations around the world.
“We don’t use them all routinely,” says John. “We have them ready in case of a crisis.”
Radioactive contamination is an extreme example of the kind of accident that can happen in the food chain. The everyday dangers are much closer to home.
More often than not, foodborne illnesses arise from a failure to follow basic hygiene rules when preparing raw, unpackaged products.
BASIC RULES: Always wash your hands to avoid cross-contamination while preparing food.
“Let’s say someone is preparing uncooked chicken in their kitchen,” says John. “They handle it, they touch surfaces, and they make other food without washing their hands.
“Then they get sick. Not from the chicken, but from the food they cross-contaminated.
“We have to educate people across the supply chain, including consumers, about the risks, and about how they can help themselves and others.
“As an industry, we have a responsibility to address the incidence of foodborne infection.”
The World Health Organization estimates that food and waterborne diarrhoeal diseases kill about 2 million people annually, mostly in developing countries.
In reality the figure could be much higher, as foodborne infections are largely under-reported.
Common foodborne pathogens include listeria, E.coli and salmonella. They take advantage of weak immune systems, especially those of infants, the infirm, pregnant women, and the elderly.
As the size of some of these more vulnerable populations continues to increase, the number of people at greatest risk of infection is expanding.
To cope with the consequences of these changing demographics, John says food companies must constantly improve their procedures.
“It’s not enough to do the same as we did before. Safety is never static. Expectations are always changing, regulations are changing, and our knowledge is changing.”