What car safety can teach to food safety

The skills of a food safety expert, or a food risk assessor, are quite distant from those of an expert of car safety.  For cars, the risks are not of a microbial, or chemical, nature as those that worry food safety types.

Nevertheless, as in the case of nuclear safety, a recent article in The Economist on car safety provides some thought-provoking inspiration.

The first aspect of interest is the race to build more safety into cars. The article cites Volvo’s self-driving V40 car, and Nissan’s future car: the new Nissan will anticipate driver’s next moves. The incentive is clear. As the article’s author puts it “in the short term, novel safety devices can help carmakers squeeze more profit out of buyers.”

A market-based approach to safety has also been advocated for foods. Food businesses offer us organic, fat-free, socially responsible, premium, PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) foods; why can’t they offer us also food which is safer than the competition?  There is of course a legal catch, at least in the EU; you cannot claim that a food has characteristics that all similar food products have. Since all food has to be safe by law (if it not safe, it cannot stay on the market), claiming your food product is safe (or safer) is akin claiming that your food is superior when it merely has characteristics that all food has, or needs to have. So marketing food safety should be prohibited. Surely, though, determined marketers, clever consultants and smart lawyers can get around the prohibition.

But there is a more serious catch, which the article explains in reference to safety devices:

But drivers soon come to expect them as standard, as do regulators….When this happens, such gadgetry becomes just another manufacturing cost“.

This is perhaps a reason for “safe food marketing” never to have been a workable solution.

There is however a more encouraging note in the article. Modern technology has helped reduce car fatalities: according to the article, in 2010 US car accident mortality was the lowest since 1949. Though, with a death toll of over 33,000, there is still much to do. In many ways, this reminds the successes, and failures, of food safety.

What is most inspiring comes from Volvo. Its safety-research chief,  Thomas Broberg said that their “aim is that by 2020 no one will ever be killed or seriously hurt driving their latest models“. No matter how “stupid” the driver is. In the food sector, where blaming the consumer is still state-of-the art risk communication, this is refreshing.

Food businesses have total safety built in regulations – yet, the food safety system, occasionally, still fails. Perhaps, food trade associations, or individual companies, should give themselves a 2020 goal similar to Volvo‘s.

_ Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

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What nuclear safety can teach food safety

Doubtless, foodborne pathogens and contamination have caused more deaths and disease than civil nuclear technology. Luckily, however, producing safe food – or even mostly safe food – is a much easier task than managing a nuclear reactor. A recent article on The Economist provides interesting insights of what nuclear – and food – safety have in common.

The article debates the Fukushima disaster, and sums it up this way:

the equipment was “of an old design. The risks they faced had not been well analysed. The operating company was poorly regulated and did not know what was going on. The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information…

This could be a food company responsible for an outbreak – happens all the time. Old equipment, lack of proper risk analysis, bad management, lax regulation, human error, equipment failure, no communication of risks.

Philippe Jamet, of France’s nuclear regulator, says something food safety people should listen to: often safety people have a shortfall of imagination, it has not happened so it can’t happen. In his words, “If you had asked me a year ago about an accident in which multiple units were left without power and cooling. I would have said it was not credible.

A good lesson follows:

The need to keep questioning things—from the details of maintenance procedures to one’s sense of the worst that could go wrong—is at the heart of a successful safety culture. …the example of a worker noticing that a diesel generator has been switched off. It is not enough to switch it back on. You also have to ask how and why it got switched off, and what other consequences that may have had. When you have got to the root of it, you not only have to change procedure but also to make sure that all other similar plants know about the problem and how to solve it.

Keep questioning things, rather than assuming that the standard is fine, is important in food safety, as is the food safety culture across the organization.

There’s a final interesting piece, especially to countries that, as their key safety message, keep telling consumers to buy national to be absolutely safe:

In many places, and particularly in Japan, the industry has felt a need to tell the public that nuclear power is safe in some absolute way…..

and after disaster:

If the Japanese nuclear establishment—industry and regulators alike—wants to earn trust, it must be seen to be learning every lesson it can. It must admit how little it previously deserved trust and explain clearly how it will do better in future. Even then, such trust will not always be given.

This seems a very good remark for many food risk managers and communicators. There is a lesson for any national food authority, or industry, which has failed. More generally, complacency has no place in the nuclear, but also in the food safety industry.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

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