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Managing food safety risks in the food industry

06 August 2015

Recent events have demonstrated that there is a steadily increasing number of new and emerging risks for the important herb and spice industry in the UK and abroad, says Richard Rothon, Director at Unbar Rothon. 

The British Retail Consortium’s standards for food quality and safety, as well as British Standards Institute ISO 9001, which are underpinned by suppliers’ robust HACCP and quality management systems, are essential tools for the controlling of such risks.

Credible HACCPs systems will always identify that incoming raw materials represent a significant risk to final products and for this reason managing emerging and established risks is a key aspect of the business. 

As a matter of normal practice the flavours and seasonings industry takes a number of actions to respond to existing and established food safety issues, as well as to new and emerging risks including adulteration and authenticity. There are a number of drivers that influence the creation of new risks – political, commercial, climatic, market forces or poor agricultural processing or delivery practices.   

Responsible UK suppliers look for emerging risks in a number of ways and take an active role in reviewing food safety alerts from the UK’s Food Standards agency as well as European equivalents via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, plus organisations that publish similar information of an equivalent quality, such as the US Food and Drug Administration. Such suppliers also maintain long-standing memberships of reputable food research associations and benefit from the excellent expertise available from those sources.

By regularly reviewing all such incoming data it is possible to identify new and emerging issues and thus make assessments of the risks involved and take appropriate action. For example, in late 2014 there were reports of possible allergen contamination of cumin.

That was a potentially life threatening situation requiring action so sampling and testing by an accredited laboratory was immediately ordered. Both current and retained stocks of ingredients already used in product production but possibly still held unused by customers were challenge tested against the pre-existing specifications which are always held on file. The outcome was favourable to our stocks and, more recently, to the industry more widely as the original test results indicating allergen contamination were reported as being false positives. 

The industry sees it as important to foster open relationships with suppliers to ensure there is transparency for all products, including information about changing markets and emerging risks. The foundation of any relationship with a supplier is that of mutual trust to comply with the necessary standards, upon which procedures to verify responsible behaviour can be used to manage supply chain risk.

Good indications of this can be seen in the long standing relationships between top flavours and seasonings houses and their reputable suppliers who are compliant with external safety accreditation Global Food Safety Initiative compliant schemes as a good benchmark against which they can be audited.

The Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks that was commissioned following Horsegate recommended a certain style of industry culture.  Our industry is well on the way to achieving the recommended standards.  Reputable suppliers maintain active cooperation with the trade through recognised trade associations to share information on food safety.

Emerging risks may become established and present a permanent feature of the way in which the industry screens raw materials for processing. Continued monitoring of emerging risks and the tests that are being conducted are thus essential.

Routine surveillance of raw materials is a key activity. All ingredients have a product specification and a standard against which every delivery is benchmarked.
A recent FSA alert concerned the salmonella contamination of pepper, a well-known food safety risk. For this reason responsible companies ensure that every delivery is tested by a UKAS accredited laboratory to confirm the absence of salmonella. 

There are, of course, many other safety issues to consider beyond salmonella contamination, including other microbiological risks as well as chemical risks such as allergens, mycotoxins and pesticides.
Responsible practices include routine testing for quality as well as safety to ensure that both colour and flavour are consistent with the requirements of the client. 

Measured responses at all stages of risk management are a key responsibility of the herb and spice industry. Thankfully, in the UK there is an abundance of such quality suppliers available and they are ready and able to serve the needs of the food industry.

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