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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One Response to What nuclear safety can teach food safety

  1. Pingback: What car safety can teach to food safety « Hylobates – food, science and regulation

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