One of the most serious risks to the safety of the food supply chain is complacency on the part of the food industry and those responsible for its regulation. Daring to believe – even for a moment – that everything is under control is usually the cue for something to go badly wrong. That is why it is important that experts continue to draw the attention of the food industry to potential food safety problems, preferably before it is too late to take action.
That may be the motivation behind the commentary article written by four environmental scientists and published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health this week. Unfortunately the authors have made a rather misguided choice of issue to sound warnings about. Under the rather provocative title Food packaging and migration of food contact materials: will epidemiologists rise to the neotoxic challenge? they call for more research into the long-term effects on human health of some 4,000 chemicals used in food packaging. They are concerned that lifelong dietary exposure to small amounts of substances like formaldehyde, bisphenol A, phthalates and triclosan used in packaging and other food contact materials could be linked to conditions as diverse as diabetes, obesity, cancer and some neurological diseases.
It all sounds a bit worrying doesn’t it – and so it would be if there were any real evidence that these chemicals are harmful at the low levels found in food. But as a number of eminent experts have been quick to point out, there isn’t, despite a substantial history of toxicological investigation. For example, bisphenol A is one of the most studied of all food contaminants, yet there is still no conclusive evidence that it is not safe at the levels found in food. Nevertheless, some governments have outlawed its use in baby’s bottles as a precautionary measure. That’s an illustration of how tightly regulated food contact materials are in many countries. Regulators and industry as a whole are anything but complacent on this issue.
Perhaps the news that 2012 saw the first fall for five years in the number of cases of campylobacteriosis in the EU carries a higher risk of complacency. There is no obvious reason for this reduction and it might be tempting to conclude that it is the result of some of the control measures that are being adopted by poultry producers and processors. However, there could be an alternative explanation. The summer of 2012 was one of the wettest on record in the UK and in Western Europe generally. Wet summers mean fewer barbecues, which means a fall in the consumption of inexpertly cooked chicken and hence, fewer cases of foodborne Campylobacter infection. Perhaps more research is needed?