Has food safe transportation become ‘the Elephant in the Room’?
In business the Elephant in the Room expression is usually used to describe a topic everyone quietly recognises but is ignoring, pretending it doesn’t exist, perhaps because it’s too costly or too difficult to deal with. But consider a situation where the Elephant is in the room simply because he is the purpose of the meeting, the very essence of why everyone is there, yet no-one realises it? This is certainly the case with food safety in the transportation sector.
It is thirteen years since Larry Keener suggested food transportation was the “Squeaky Wheel of the Food Safety System” and, disgracefully, the situation has not improved. Certainly, this squeaky wheel didn’t get any grease.
According to the WHO (World Health Organisation) the risk of food-borne illness has increased as rapid globalisation of the food supply chain highlights issues with food safety, food quality and food logistics. Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General states, “Food production and distribution has been globalised. These changes have introduced multiple new opportunities for food to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals. Contamination can occur at any point along the farm-to-table food chain and hygiene and sanitation practices play a critical role in minimising the potential for microbial contamination of food.“
So Many Suffer Needlessly
Each year, over 200 billion metric tons of food is transported globally. As we import different foods from all over the world new enteropathogens emerge and others grow resistant to treatment. An outbreak of food-borne illness now has the potential to be national, continental or even global in scale. Globally 600 million people a year fall ill after eating contaminated food. 420,000 people die including 125,000 children aged under 5. The primary cause is lack of hygiene and presence of pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites.
The sheer quantity and variety of foods transported, along with the multitude of container, temperature, and handling requirements for each food product, emphasises the vulnerability of food to possible contamination during transport and storage. Risk factors for contamination are many ranging from temperature issues, employee behaviours and unhygienic units of conveyance and transport vehicles contaminating food or accelerating spoilage.
Questionable Food Safety
Growth in the variety of foods, sourcing locations, manufacturing processes and multiple modes of transportation has created unease about food safety during transportation and storage. Food safety experts are questioning whether the transportation industry have avoided food safety and cut-corners for so long that they can no longer claim to provide services which support the integrity of food and minimise risks to consumers.
Cross-contamination of food is a significant issue during food transportation for all transportation modes. This can occur due to harmful microorganisms being transferred from one product to another or the cross-contact of an allergen-containing product either through palletising or improper cleaning and sanitisation of transport vehicles, containers and equipment after transportation of allergen-containing products. Prior loads, partial shipments and uncontrolled use of subcontract vehicles clearly pose a high risk for food cross-contamination during transportation and handling yet many organisations increasingly appear to prioritise efficiency and cost ahead of food safety. Food carrying vehicles that are not subject to a program of hygienic cleaning and sanitisation protocols are at best falling short of industry best practice and at worst are flouting fundamental international food safety regulations.
Historically, most shipments arrive at their destination via road transport. It now appears that more and more food and food ingredients arrive by sea containers and air transport, a new paradigm with new risks and hazards. Governments, consumers, and stakeholders expect unblemished safety processes from farm-to-fork and they increasingly do not care where in the food supply chain the failure occurs. Outsourced and decentralised logistics operations now depend on localised awareness of and scrupulous adherence to food safety obligations.
In a recent UK survey 88% of shoppers said their belief was that all food producers, retailers and service providers currently prioritised bacteria free hygiene standards for all equipment throughout their supply chain, including trolleys, baskets, trays and vehicles.
Yet in a separate survey of UK food logistics professionals, a significant 88% of respondents confirmed their operations were unaware of HACCP requirements or food transport hygiene regulatory obligations. Unsurprisingly 65% of respondents considered current levels of food safety and hygiene in food logistics to be unacceptable.
Any company whose services form part of the food supply chain of custody, risks their own and others’ reputation and financial performance unless they fully discharge their food safety obligations and have demonstrable systems in place to manage risks and protect consumers. With increasing regulation, media coverage and consumer awareness companies can ill-afford to not address upstream and downstream operational risks and their regulatory obligations.
Although retailers and food service operators often associate food contamination with sourcing and production processes, increased scrutiny is also being placed on the transit of foodstuffs. Cost-saving initiatives and strategies such saving food miles and backhauling waste have not ensured that new risks may result from these initiatives. Logistics operations and support services must demonstrate operational integrity and apply the necessary hygiene control standards which uphold and do not compromise the rigorous standards growers, producers, processors and packaging operations are held to in providing high quality food and reduced consumer risk.
It is a major concern that third party operators in the food chain are either unaware of their regulatory obligations or appear indifferent regarding even legal minimums. Clearly local conditions have the potential to weaken the chain of custody and allow a pathogen or contaminant to enter the food supply chain. Therefore, contamination prevention must be an end to end obligation for all stakeholders and any lack of awareness, inadequate processes or substandard hygiene practices are unjustifiable.
Food Safety Regulations
While food safety regulations, best-practice guidelines, and other safety standards safeguard consumers against the harmful effects of contaminants, the food supply chain cannot rely on the regulatory authorities to safeguard their compliance. Regulators are now shifting food safety responsibilities onto food chain participants, assigning them a major role in secondary detection and prevention. Those who rely on commercially motivated accreditation schemes to ‘prove’ their compliance must grasp that many food service related certification audits are both obscure and indeterminate in terms of transport hygiene standards and regulatory obligations. This can lead to the misleading belief that achievement of more generalised certification also encompasses food transport activities when in fact regulatory standards and primary contamination prevention disciplines such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) are not universally applied throughout the operation or at all.
Knowing where to begin to strengthen food safety can seem an overwhelming issue for those not involved in food production such as third-party logistics, warehousing, conveyance equipment management or related operators. However there are straightforward best practices to follow:
- Undertake a food supply chain vulnerability assessment to identify food-safety exposures in your operations. This should cover risks in your business and those of your key logistics and support services providers.
- Enhance food safety by introducing routine monitoring of the policies and procedures of your internal and external supply chain operations. Key service provider’s risk strategies must be aligned with your own.
- Investigate alternative prevention processes and systems. Third-party operators often manage sizeable sections of the supply chain without implementing many options to mitigate risk and improve standards.
- Ensure supply chain partners have the ability to assess and manage overall food safety risks related to their service areas. This should include risk-mitigation and regulatory compliance as a minimum.
Recent studies within the food transportation sector have highlighted that high levels of pathogenic contamination is commonplace within the food transport sector in addition to alarming shortfalls in the sector’s awareness of existing food safety regulations or food safe best practice obligations. Thirteen years after Larry Keener’s words little has changed in the food transport sector.
So now we know why the Elephant’s in the Room. Say hello.