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 –

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 –

Sorbitol death is wake-up call for Internet retailers

In Barletta, a town with 91,000 inhabitants in South-East Italy, a woman has died, and two have been hospitalized after ingesting a vial which seems to have contained sorbitol. According to Carlo Locatelli, of the Poisons Center in Pavia, Italy, which is one of Italy’s leading Poisons Centers, the patients developed methemoglobinemia, a condition in which oxygen cannot be captured by red blood cells. Fortunately, the two surviving patients were saved by prompt administration of methylene blue, a colour dye, which also reverses methemoglobinemia .

Sorbitol is a polyol which naturally occurs in fruit, and is widely used in candies and other low-calorie products. From the outset, the symptomatology suggested that nitrates could be responsible for the tragic deaths. According to Italy’s Ministry of Health, there is no information suggesting product contamination. Nevertheless, the Italian police squad assigned to food safety matters, the NAS, have seized over 1,000 tons of food-grade sorbitol at Cargill’s plants in Northern Italy but have apparently ordered no product testing. The implicated sorbitol was manufactured at Cargill’s plant in Rovigo, in Northern Italy. The most recent media reports indicate that the product was 70% sodium nitrite, and it is unclear how it could have been mistaken for sorbitol. News that implicated an industry-grade sorbitol lot (sorbitol is also used for manufacturing plastics, etc) are not confirmed.

It is early to say what the root cause of the problem was, or what failed in the system that should protect patients, and to separate the root cause from the inevitable legal blame-game that follows tragedies.

The doctors administering the sorbitol-based test seem to have purchased the product from eBay, which has expressed sorrow and halted globally the sales of sorbitol. It is unclear if a recall should follow, or if it will. There’s no basis at this time to suggest that food companies should recall sorbitol-containing products; however, they can trace their sorbitol to exclude the affected lot is involved. Moreover, they should follow closely the events.

Cargill has issued a press release in Italian (well done, and the loss of website formatting means their crisis team had to act quickly), explaining that the lot was manufactured at their site in February 2010, and since packaged elsewhere. The product conformed to tests when it left the production site.

As we wait for further news, it is still unclear how the product was sold over ebay.

For the moment, this tragedy seems to show that Internet retailers, when selling foods or food ingredients, are food business operators, and should ensure the safety of their products – much like grocery retailers do – and issuing recalls when necessary.  eBay seems to be behaving like a responsible food business. Others, like Amazon, should start doing the same even if they think they’re not food businesses.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

Communicating food recalls to consumers is becoming more common in Italy. Leaf Italia, owner of the Sperlari brand, has gone public with a foreign body-caused recall of pralines.

 This breaks with Italy’s reluctance to go public with recalls, even if – interestingly – the company has prohibited the copying or distributing or discussing the press release issued on their website (for that reason we do not link to it; this discussion is based on what is reported on another source, see below).

“Companies in Italy have in their procedures to go public in these cases”, says Hylo’s Luca Bucchini, “Nevertheless, companies and national authorities have hesitated on the ground that ‘nobody ever goes public with a recall’. This is clearly changing. For example, last year, Carrefour went public. In this case, one should also note that foreign bodies in Italy have always been a low priority for regulators, in contrast with the UK or the US. As in other EU countries, regulators focus on microbial or chemical risk. This is therefore a significant departure from tradition, and we expect to see more of this since regional authorities are eager on this, and several companies were just waiting for someone to break the ice”.

At Hylo we believe that ordinary recalls, even if publicized, when no serious illnesses are involved, are not detrimental to a brand – Ikea is perhaps the best example – and are in line with EU law.

This news piece is not based on the Sperlari website. It is based on the information below:

http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/sicurezza-alimentare-allerta-dalla-valle-daosta.html

Hylo Team

Art. 13 health claim list regulation will provide reassurances (and worries)

The first outcome of the discussion in Brussels on the 5th of December was that the Regulation with the “big list” under art. 13.1 (the claims which should have been based on generally accepted evidence) will clarify that only health claims on the list are allowed, all others being forbidden, with two exceptions.

The exceptions include “claims requiring further consideration by the risk managers before a decision on them can be taken; claims requiring a further assessment by EFSA; and claims on “botanical” substances; that have not received an assessment by EFSA following a request by the Commission”. Such claims will be listed on the EC website (botanicals, probiotics, caffeine, some odd claims on arginine, one claim on fructose and one claim on glycaemic carbohydrates, etc). Hopefully the text will be clear enough to avoid unwarranted enforcement (and the situation with caffeine is rapidly resolved).

The Committee also accepted that the claims of beta-glucans cannot be extended beyond EFSA opinion (to all beta-glucans); clarified the conditions for use on water-related health claims and on glucomannan; extended health claims valid for some weight loss products to all products complying with Directive 96/8/EC; and said no to a claim on fat and to one on sodium (as they are not beneficial).

On a related matter, providing a spark of hope, the Committee approved a new Regulation refusing market authorisation to some claims. This smaller Regulation will grant  more generous terms extending “the period granted to operators and national controlling authorities to adapt to the new requirements of the draft Regulation to all claims used in commercial communications and not only to those used on the label of products”. There is widespread concern that enacting terms have been too stringent for stakeholders so far, especially when the health claim had legally been on the market for some time. Hopefully, this reasoning will be applied more broadly in the future.

– Sports Nutrition Team –

Food additives: EC adopts a new Regulation

The European Commission has  adopted a new Regulation, implementing Regulation EC 1333/2008. The new Regulation includes list of food additives intended for foodstuffs and food ingredients. The lists will replace lists under  Directives 95/2/CE, 94/36/CE and 94/35/CE in 2013.

The Regulation also foresees that anti-caking agent silicon dioxide can be used for salt substitutes at higher levels and that the coating agent basic metacrilate can be used for food supplements. These specific rules will come into force 20 days after the publication of the present regulation, on December 2 2012; the general list apply on 1 June 2013. Products legally marketed before 1 June 2013 can continue to be sold.

It is interesting to note that the list is divided into categories for different foodstuffs. The category for food supplements is number 17 (solid form such as capsules and tablets, liquid form, syrup or chewable). It is noteworthy that category 13 is food with particular nutritional purposes; foods for sportsmen are not included, further confirmation of the upcoming abolition of this category (if not abolished, theoretically from June 1  2013, no additives would be allowed in foods for sportsmen, as well as in other dietetic foods for which specific rules have not been set).

Armando Antonelli- Sport Nutrition Team

Food firms on the continent should prepare for the nutrition information challenge

Having just returned from the UK and having stopped at McDonald’s to enjoy their free WiFi, I was greatly helped in making my food choices by energy content information displayed along the product list. They have chosen the more common kilocalories over more rigorous kJ, which also was helpful. Regardless of choices available in my energy target for lunch, I found the numbers very useful for eventually picking a grilled chicken salad.

What struck me is that, in Italy, there is no such information on display. As in the UK, at local McDonald’s, they have clear and complete nutrition facts on the back of the paper that covers your tray, but consumers have access to the information only after buying the product. I also dined in a small, independent restaurant (Valerie’s), and they also had energy content in their menu (other places did not: it is clearly voluntary).

I am not singling out the fast food chain; they are just following the national norm. Rather, it is interesting that the nutrition societal debate in the UK prompts caterers to provide that information, and that, bar very few exceptions (e.g., Wok at the Rome Termini Station does have it, if I am not mistaken, though their website is oddly silent), the nutrition culture climate in Italy does not have the same effect.

My point is that, though we have a great dietary culture, Italy is doing too little on nutrition and nutrition information. Some companies are rather active, but the nutrition culture is still lagging behind what is clearly an ever stronger need. I am not advocating specific solutions here, but calling for awareness.

Indeed, food companies, large and small, should be aware of the nutrition challenge which the obesity epidemic has generated, and, if smart, anticipate and find opportunities in the cultural shift that will eventually reach the Peninsula as well.

Based on recent experience, the same advice applies to Central Europe as well, including Germany and Belgium.

On our part, we, as consultants, need to be ready to provide the correct regulatory and technical advice; luckily, there starts to be enough regulation, and science, to give meaningful and robust suggestions.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

PS: I am not associated with any of the above businesses in any working capacity.

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