Food moves around the world faster than ever – an orange can travel from half way around the world and be in a US retailer in a single day. For some highly integrated food manufacturing operations, such as seafood, the product can be harvested, processed, shipped, and retailed in two days. This is phenomenal for improved product quality and to accelerate the global economy…but it creates tremendous burdens and gaps for the food regulatory system. These regulatory and market dynamics contribute to the fraud opportunity for food. The burdens and gaps emphasize the need for global collaboration and an expanding public-private partnership.
A report that emphasizes this global collaboration is Sowing The Seeds – Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation on Food Safety by the Woodrow Wilson Institute. This report provides incredible insight on Food Safety in China from both a food science and social science perspective. This interdisciplinary, holistic perspective is important because there are so many factors beyond just technological capabilities to assure food safety and food security – the safe, continuous, nutritious, and economically accessible supply of food.
Reports like Sowing the Seeds are important for us as researchers, if we look at them with a broad lens, to see future trends. While I found the amount of information that applied to Food Fraud and counterfeiting absolutely overwhelming, in looking back over the four years since I first read the report, I realize that it helped shape my thinking. Some insights that predicted changes that did occur included:
- The Chinese version of the CDC emphasized a need for collaboration in the areas of risk assessment and data collection. Now Chinese government officials are participating in Expert Panels for the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)/ Food Chemicals Codex. Chinese companies are members of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
- The role of the media was discussed by another Chinese government official who emphasized “…the need to strengthen communication with the news media to prevent unscientific information from reaching the public, and to use the media as an integral part of emergency response.” They discussed reporters being “one of three pillars ensuring food safety at the local level.” Here in 2013 we just saw a Food Fraud-focused scientific and enforcement report published first to the media – the scientific information and data were reported openly, quickly, and with a lot of detail (see my 5 /5/13 blog post). You don’t have to consume too much media in the US to see that we still struggle with unscientific information (a carry-over trace contaminant versus a harmful level of an adulterant) or misinformation about what is actually fraudulent (some technologies, like irradiation vastly improve product quality and safety… to note, I like the term “electronic pasteurization”). A sensational article here in the US regarding unfounded food safety issues has crippled industries and led to the economic collapse of companies.
- The report continually emphasized the proactive steps that were started in China – as well as the economic and social drivers that indicated the programs would continue to be supported, as they were.
- One of the most impactful insights, which I frequently quote, is that there are over 500,000 food manufacturing facilities in China, 350,000 of which are on less than 2 acres of land each, with less than 10 employees. Their products are consolidated before getting into commerce so those farmers have no brand to protect… and they probably don’t even have traceability systems, let alone electricity to run computers. This is an amazing and HUGE number that defines the challenge of inspection and even traceability.
- As with the rest of the world, including the US, the “greatest food safety threat in China remains microbial contamination.”
Reports like Sowing the Seeds support what we think we know in traditional areas and they also open our eyes to other vulnerabilities. This report presented details in well-known areas such as general Food Safety but we were also made aware of some very important issues in disciplines such as Veterinary Medicine. The animal populations are large, and include small animals as well as aquaculture such as fish – China is a huge exporter of fish to the US. The report details animal issues with drug residues or contamination including chloramphenicol, malachite green, furazolidone, nitrofuran, gentian violet, flouroquinolones. Beyond optimal application practices of medicines, issues were highlighted including the impact of illegal or counterfeit veterinary medicines and feed. These Food Safety and Veterinary Medicine dangers are not always clearly understood and the report stated that this information often does not make it to the regional or local level – highlighting an educational opportunity that would result in a great increase in public health and food security.
While Food Fraud has been the focus of my work and this blog, reports like Sowing the Seeds emphasize that an integrated approach is critical across food security, food quality, food safety, food fraud, and food defense. If we approach “food” from all angles we can reduce the overall risks and increase production of the products we all need. Reports like Sowing the Seeds also emphasize that food protection responsibility is global and interdisciplinary in nature… emphasizing the efficiency and effectiveness of public-private partnerships. Prevention starts with education. Your education should begin with a broad range of information sources that provide insight on broad policy implications, but then continue all the way down to the application in the field. Start by reading reports like Sowing the Seeds . JWS.