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 –

Oxidative damage (included UV-induced): health claims guideline.

EFSA has published a guidance to explain what are the scientific requirements for health claims referring to: antioxidant, oxidative damage and cardiovascular health.

First of all EFSA states (in accordance with Reg. 1924/2006) that the 2 main requirements to substantiate a claim are that the claimed effects have to be considered as a beneficial physiological effects and that it must be supported by adequate studies in humans.

In the first part of the document the status of ‘antioxidant’ is discussed: the concept of “antioxidant” as a benefit is rejected, but this aspect will be discussed more specifically in another post.

Regarding protection from oxidative damage, which can be claimed and is intended as proven protection of body cells and molecules (i.e. DNA, proteins and lipids) from oxidative damage, EFSA established some general requirements to substantiate these claim with reference to all the cellular structures:

–          An appropriate method of assessment should be able to determine accurately and specifically the oxidative modification of the target molecule in vivo (at least an appropriate market of oxidative modification needed).

–          A marker (method) cannot be accepted for substantiation when (technical) limitations are considered to be severe.  

 Then, as reported above, the food/constituent has to show a real beneficial effect on target molecules and it has to be demonstrated by  setting up adequate scientific studies, involving humans. Below the methods accepted to validate the beneficial physiological effect, specific for every different cellular body:

–          Proteins: the only validated method to detect oxidative damage is HPLC-MS. Proteins by products analysis (ELISA or other colorimetric methods) shows some limitation, then they cannot be considered valid alone, but just in combination with other direct methods.

–          Lipids: F2-isoprostanes in 24-h urine samples is the recommended method. LDL oxidised particles (using specific antibodies) and phosphatidylcholine hydroperoxides (using HPLC) are validated methods as well. Not allowed markers: reactive substances (TBARS), malondialdehyde (MDA), lipid peroxides, HDL-associated paraoxonases, conjugated dienes, breath hydrocarbons, auto-antibodies against LDL particles, and ex vivo LDL resistance to oxidation).

–          DNA: recommended method is the modified comet assay which allow the detection of oxidised DNA bases (e.g. use of endonuclease III to detect oxidised pyrimidines). Conventional comet assay and other methods are not suitable.

Other methods still widely used to measure antioxidant properties are to be considered worthless in the perspective of health claims. This applies to the evaluation of past studies, and future studies of benefits of food.

Armando – Sport Nutrition team

No more botulin in olives, please

Preserved olives (“Organic Olives Stuffed with Almonds”) made in Italy have apparently caused a tragic death in Finland, because of botulism. They are being recalled across Europe (in the UK, in Ireland).

At the time of writing, I firmly hope that there is no further exposure to the product, no further illness, and that a totally preventable death does at least help stave off pain from other lives and families.

The tragic event relates to some lines of reflection relevant to our current research and consulting work.

First, one will note that the recall (which concerns currently all batches of the product) is now clearly mentioned on the firm`s website. Starting on October 28, the news had some traction in Italy too. Informing the public of own recalls through their own websites is considered best practice, though only a minority of companies appear to do so on either side of the Atlantic; apparently, on that day the company sent a Press Release to Italy’s leading news agency, ANSA.

Italian authorities, who are certainly taking action in the field, have also been silent about the issue, including whether the same product is distributed locally (it turns out it is), till today, October 31 (the Ministry of Health seems to confirm that the olives were on sale in Italy too, and that the plant has been shut down). Normally Italian authorities go public when botulism is suspected, unlike when other foodborne disease is (Listeriosis, Salmonellosis, etc), or when there is no illness. Italian authorities generally believe that they are capable of controlling risks, and that information to consumers would not reduce the risk to consumers but would result in undue alarmism, with unwarranted losses to the relevant food sector. This is in line with the attitude in Germany and other EU countries, and contrasts sharply with the US/UK approach, though in principle the UK has the same regulatory system (a lay-man reading of the EU General Food Safety Law would support UK`s practice). However, botulism is an exception, and in this case there was lots of media pressure, and a tragic death to confirm the need to go public.

Generally, however, even beyond botulism, we expect more food recalls to be publicized in Italy and other previously shy EU countries, because of several reasons.

Consumers are becoming used to nonfood recalls (for example, those of IKEA are common place), even if they see very few food-related ones. Moreover, when a food recall has in fact been made public and there were no illnesses, the media impact has been nihil or benign. Therefore, the brand damage of issuing a press release in case of a recall can now be estimated with some confidence. The cost of not going public early, on the other hand, is also becoming clearer: consumers are coming to expect public recalls as part of a company`s social responsibility. In this case, the delay has further tarnished, or probably killed, the brand reputation – when the issue was clearly too large to remain silent.

There also seems to be more willingness of international companies to apply best practice across the EU, even against national norms. Carrefour went recently public with a recall.

Also, some online media blogs and magazines are increasing their attention to this topic, and put pressure on firms (and authorities).

Leaving communication aside, organic, or home-made style, preserved olives have caused recurring botulism problems in Italy and elsewhere. This is striking. We have understood botulism for almost two centuries, and there is is strong food technology to keep the toxins out of our food. Preserving food requires knowledge, process and controls: food safety is not a malicious invention of multinational funded, greedy, positivist tradition haters. Most organic or home-made style food businesses may accept the anti-science rhetoric, but refrain from practicing it. Nevertheless, a few, smaller ones may not realize the need for skilled staff; more do not realize that validation of processes is not auditors`latest oddity. How much this applies to the present case it is early to say, though we know for sure that botulin should not have been there, and that the technology to prevent it is available.

In this respect, the organic food industry should be bold, and use its means, without excuses, to rid us of the hazards, least this tarnishes the organic brand (through certification they have strong tools). There is certainly a place for auditors, and official control staff to just say no when preserving can`t be done properly.

In summary, we advise to review recall plans under the communication header and make sure not to make, or stop making, preserved foods (my steadfast advice to all agriturismi is not to do it) or, if you do, that you can make it properly (for every recipe).

And let`s hope nobody hears, or dies, of botulism and olives again.

Luca Bucchini, Managing Director

Update:  on Nov 1st, the FDA made the recall (which is of a voluntary nature) public.

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.

Hylobates’ consultants get ready to work with EFSA’s application desk

Hylo’s consulting team is preparing to work closely with the newly created EFSA’s application desk on applications submitted on behalf of clients.   According to EFSA, the mission of the newly created application desk is to act as a front office and support desk for applicants.   The application desk should handle requests of applicants, Member States, stakeholders and other interested parties and register and conduct an initial administrative compliance check on application dossiers, among other duties.  The application desk is part of the new EFSA’s REPRO Directorate whose aim is to provide independent scientific advice related to risk assessment of substances, products and processes intended to be used in the food chain and, substantiation of claims made on foods.

“EFSA is a pillar of food safety and the rule-based food information system in the EU. Working closely with the Authority has always been a priority for Hylobates” according to Luca Bucchini, Hylobates’managing director “Being based in Italy, we are close to the Authority; we scrutinize, seek to understand all its actions. The setting up of the desk is a step in the right direction, in line with the most efficient food administrations in the EU. We believe it will help us aid applicants in a more effective way, rewarding rapidly good applications”.

Hylobates Consulting

Time for work exchange at Hylobates Consulting

Hylobates Consulting has just hosted Liesbeth Dewitt, one of the scientists from the University of Surrey, Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Department , UK working  in the framework of the EU network of excellence EURRECA which has as goal the alignment of the micronutrients recommendations across Europe.  Liesbeth has spent a whole week at Hylobates and I had the chance to work with her on the results of the qualitative interviews with experts in the vitamin D, folate and iodine policies carried out in 10 European countries, including Italy. Liesbeth and I have had very fruitful “scientific conversations”, we did some brainstorming on the highlights of the interviews  in the perspective of the article to be published in a scientific journal that will result from the qualitative research. Liesbeth is now doing the hard job of writing up the whole paper.

 

Antonella Guzzon-Research Team

Thinking ahead for the PlantLIBRA project.

After a intensive work week at the PlantLIBRA project meeting in Brasov in the middle of May, the Project Management Team has recharged energies, is taking actions in the project organization, and is planning the next steps of work.

This last meeting has given all of us the chance to reflect and to learn from all the events and outcomes of this international event, and given us helpful insights to even start planning the project’s next meeting in one year. This second project meeting  has provided us with the valuable opportunity to meet our partners, many for the first time in person since the beginning of the project. We exchanged views on plant food supplements, and shared ideas and enthusiasm about the work we are carrying on. The lessons of this first year has made us aware of achievements and problems areas to prepare us for the next work period.

A special acknowledgment for the kind and well appreciated organization and hospitality goes to PlantLIBRA partners of  the University of Transilvania, Dr Mihaela Badea and Monica Florescu, who have provided their constant support and efforts during the whole Project meeting.

Sonia Rebustini, PlantLIBRA Management Team

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