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image European Research News Centre > Agriculture and Food > Food quality and safety: the paradox of progress
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image Food quality and safety: the paradox of progress
RTD info special FP6
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  Due to progress in science and technology – and the increasingly stringent legislation that has resulted – today's agri-foodstuffs sector must respect ever stricter standards and increasingly rigorous quality control and monitoring procedures. Yet paradoxically, over the past decade there has also been an increasing number of food alerts – BSE, dioxin, listeria, salmonella – creating a genuine crisis of confidence among consumers. Research on food safety and quality must therefore be a priority.
   
   

The paradox stems from changes resulting from two factors. While the globalisation of supply and commerce provides for a very varied range of produce in the shops, it inevitably increases the risk of poor quality. Also, the economic pressure for ever growing rationalisation of the complete agri-foodstuffs chain – from the farm to the supermarket shelf, including processing and transport – results in produce being sold in bulk. When there is a problem at any stage of this chain, the threat of contamination can consequently assume alarming proportions with the potential of placing large sections of the population at risk.

Increasing by stealth

Although safer and subject to stricter control, the agri-foodstuffs sector is increasingly exposed to 'industrial' risks. Apart from the very particular cases of BSE (or mad cow disease), which originated in the United Kingdom, or the Belgian 'accident' concerning dioxin contamination, attributable to the gross negligence of a supplier of animal feed, scientists are most concerned by the much stealthier and generalised increase in the frequency of illnesses linked to microbiological contamination by Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria.

Another problem is the exposure to chemical elements contained in food, whose source is much more difficult to trace. These may be natural toxic products (such as mycotoxins) or a whole range of contaminants (compounds originating in pesticides, dioxins, mercury, lead, and radionuclides).

Questioning the innovations

There is, however, more to food safety than quality control and monitoring. Biotechnology has opened up a vast field of exploration into new methods of agricultural production, including the creation of genetically modified plants and nutritional inventions such as so-called 'functional' foods or 'pharmafoods'.

The GMO debate is currently raging between the promoters of these innovations, who justify them in the name of the progress they bring (in particular for solving environmental problems as well as problems of hunger and food shortages in the world's poorest countries), and their opponents, who condemn a profit motive and a lack of both health and environmental precautions. But the debate is going nowhere – a situation which created yet another reason for intensifying research. It is by further exploring the potential of biotechnology that an objective light can be shed on these issues.

The media spotlight

Science has an uncomfortable role in food safety. Called in by politicians, especially at times of crisis, it is often asked to provide certainties and principles of precaution when all it can offer are presumptions. On this basis, it is then asked to approve intervention plans which can have very major economic and social repercussions. Finally, and above all, it is propelled into the media spotlight where the experts – sometimes unsure, sometimes contradicting one another – often fail to impress the public, which further fuels a growing distrust of science.


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Of major economic and social importance

The agriculture and food sectors are vitally important to the European economy as a whole. The food industry is a leading sector in the EU, with the highest annual production in the world at close to €600 billion, or about 15% of the total for the processing industry as a whole. It is the third industrial employer, employing over 2.6 million workers, 30% in small and medium-sized businesses. The agricultural sector has a total production of about €220 billion and provides the equivalent of 7.5 million full-time jobs.

Exports of agricultural products and food are worth about €50 billion a year. Given the economic stakes involved and the omnipresence of food in our lives, society in general, and the public authorities and producers in particular, have an obligation to attach the greatest possible importance to food safety.

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Bio-packaging : 
It is not just the content - the container, too, must pass all the tests. Various research projects, in particular on bio-films made from natural polymers, are developing packagings providing increased safety, especially for 
'ready-to-use' products.

Bio-packaging
It is not just the content - the container, too, must pass all the tests. Various research projects, in particular on bio-films made from natural polymers, are developing packagings providing increased safety, especially for 'ready-to-use' products.

 


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