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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