VEG-I-TRADE – Globalisation and climate change: The two world wide threats to food safety
With the global population set on a rapidly rising path towards 9 billion, the challenge facing the world's food supply is clear to see.
Two closely linked factors can be seen as major contributors to the safety risk – climate change and the increasing globalisation of trade.
While globalisation means our food comes from ever more diverse parts of the world, making it harder to monitor and manage safety systems and procedures, climate change is likely to result in significant changes to the ways in which crops are cultivated and treated. Evidence is already emerging that such changes have important implications for food safety.
Established in 2010 and planned to run for four years, VEG-I-TRADE is a groundbreaking project, funded by the EU under its 7th Framework Programme, with the specific aim of providing reliable methods to assess the impacts of climate change and globalisation on food safety, and to develop response mechanisms to eliminate or minimise the resulting risks.
With 23 partner organisations, including universities, research institutes, SMEs and large industrial companies, VEG-I-TRADE has a truly international scope, which matches the global nature of the issues it is addressing. Participants come not only from around Europe, but also from Egypt, India, Brazil and South Africa.
The approach is to assess food safety in terms of both microbiological and chemical hazards. The microbiological hazards include a list now frighteningly familiar to the newspaperreading public: VTEC, Salmonella, Norovirus, Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Chemical hazards included pesticide residues and mycotoxins – the poisons produced by fungi or mould.
A guiding principle of the VEG-I-TRADE project is its comprehensive, 'fork to farm' view of the fresh food production chain. This means it is focusing on the consumer, not just on crop cultivation, but all pre- and post-harvest processing, and also the water used at all stages of the process.
Early achievements so far include the development of a microbial sampling and analysis tool. By using this at various stages in the crop cycle, and including water and all food contact materials such as packaging in the tests, it is possible to build a 'microbial profile' of a given production process.
Methods of detecting Norovirus in water used in both irrigation and processing have been evaluated, and the most effective one identified and selected.
Meanwhile, against a background of increasing evidence that climate change is affecting the transmission of food- and water-borne diseases, VEG-I-TRADE is investigating the impact of this on toxin-producing moulds and the production of mycotoxins, as well as the development rate of various pests and the effects of climate change on pesticide use and residues.
Due to run until 2014, the extensive work of VEG-I-TRADE still has a long way to go. However, the outline of its end-results is already clear, safer food, better information for consumers, as well as reliable risk-analysis and riskmanagement techniques for policy-makers.
And last, but by no means least: guidelines and tools to help the food industry aspire to, and achieve, best food safety practice. In an industry where reputation is vital – and easily shattered in the wake of a contamination incident – no-one can afford to ignore this highest priority of all.