The food market has transformed significantly in recent years, from the year-round availability of fresh produce to emerging niche products like cell-grown meats to online food ordering and delivery services. Consumers have not only created a demand for alternative food options but have been able to directly engage with food manufacturers, which makes the importance of hazard analysis a key focus in 2023 for not only food safety but also brand protection.
When you peel back the layers of these emerging products, we may uncover hidden food safety risks that come with these innovations. Let’s map out various food trends that may pose higher food safety risks against the reality that Hazard Analysis Control Points (HACCP) and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements must be followed, starting with a consideration of the wider array of hazards that may exist.
Effectively Managing Demand, Expectations and Food Safety While Not Losing Sight of the Importance of Hazard Analysis
In the last few years, we have seen widespread transformations in the food market. There are huge expansions in food choices and their availability, allowing access to global foods and produce from all over the world throughout the year. The pandemic highlighted many alternate ways for us to get our food, enabling 24/7 availability. Through all of these, it’s key to maintain the balance for diverse foods and emerging innovations while staying focused on the importance of hazard analysis when meeting consumer demand. Doing this requires identifying newer hazards that have emerged and ensuring that they are effectively managed.
The year-round availability of fresh produce has resulted in longer transport times and sourcing from alternative growing areas, including more indoor operations and the use of hydroponics. To help ensure food safety, it is essential that Good Agriculture Practices, such as those provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) be adopted. These provide guidance aimed at the sources of primary hazards associated with the growing of produce — soil, water, agricultural chemicals, animals in fields, and hygiene.
According to recent data summarized by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration, more than 58% of E. coli O157 illnesses were attributed to vegetable row crops (such as leafy greens) and more than 28% of Salmonella illnesses were attributed to four food categories: seeded vegetables, vegetable row crops, sprouts, and other produce. Pesticides can prevent large crop losses and will, therefore, continue to play a role in agriculture. However, the effects of exposure to pesticides on humans and the environment are a continuing concern. These potential hazards need to be considered and controls implemented where indicated.
Will Current Food Safety Controls Keep Pace with Alternative Food Demand?
In addition to year-round availability, there is a flood of alternatives to traditional foods. Ponder the categories of sweeteners and milk-like beverages — sucrose-substitute products such as maple or coconut sugar and “milks” made from oats, sesame, almonds, coconut, or rice. The diversity seems endless — and more variations are likely to come!
Of course, to ensure the safety of any food, consideration of food safety hazards must be done. Some of these choices tee up allergens that the average consumer may not think about since they’ve been long used to traditional forms of these foods. Other chemical hazards from heavy metals or pesticides may need to be considered along with a robust assessment of the extent of processing that would be required and verification of achievement.
For example, we have a long history of safety from bovine milks processed in compliance with the Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO). Can this be applied directly to almond milk, for example? And how would the hazard of a coconut allergen be addressed in the sugar or “milk” form of this commodity? Once again, an awareness of the complete landscape of hazards is essential so they can be effectively managed.
One crucial aspect of maintaining food safety and product integrity is through effective process monitoring and contamination control. Inline sampling, a method that allows for real-time analysis of the process, has emerged as a valuable tool for liquid food processors, including plant-based milk alternatives. Aseptic inline sampling techniques can help liquid food and beverage processors be proactive in identifying and addressing potential issues, resulting in improved product consistency and reduced risk of contamination.
Keeping Consumers Safe in the “New Norm” World
As the pandemic fades, consumers are returning to dining out and seeking variety here as well. In 2022, the National Restaurant Association partnered with the American Culinary Federation and Technomic to conduct its annual “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast”. More than 500 professional chefs participated to share what they see as the leading food and menu trends for 2023. Among the findings, they described a strengthening demand for restaurant experiences and local flavors that cannot be duplicated at home and innovation focused on areas such as incorporating tastes from around the globe and cell-grown meats. The survey described that menus would provide a balance of comfort and healthy foods as well as “sustainable foods” that are ethically produced and sourced.
A return to food prepared outside the home is something many of us desire, and we look forward to these offerings. It is worthwhile to consider that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data tell us that restaurant and catering environments remain the most commonly reported locations of food preparation associated with outbreaks. This reality continues to stress the need for the implementation of robust food safety systems in these settings.
The growth of delivery services through the pandemic allowed us to continue seeking out variety in our meals with food prepared outside the home. The safety of these foods relies on effective temperature management and implementation of proper hot and cold holding and cooling. Gaps in these practices can result in illnesses attributed to Clostridium perfringens, for example, which remains among the top causes of foodborne illnesses.
Curbside, counter pick-up and drive-through options remain popular as we eat more “on the go.” Easy-to-carry foods such as sandwiches and wraps remain popular. Consider, too, that norovirus remains the top cause of foodborne illness globally and is often associated with human handling of foods and poor personal hygiene. It is essential that controls be implemented to address this potential hazard.
Managing the Risks to Ensure SAFE Innovative Foods
All these new foods can be grown, manufactured, prepared, transported and consumed safely… but a deliberate focus must be on fully evaluating safety hazards. A systematic process is needed, focused on the identification and evaluation of all relevant hazards so they can be effectively controlled. The emerging risks are real but manageable as long as those charged with managing risks (including consumers, food manufacturers, food service providers, food retailers, etc.) and those who provide regulatory oversight (e.g., government officials) are fully engaged and committed. Following sound food safety approaches rooted in HACCP helps ensure safe, innovative foods for all!