What does 2014 have in store for food safety?

| January 9, 2014

new yearThe New Year seems to have started with a bang in food safety terms. Just over a week in and already we have a multistate Salmonella outbreak in the USA and a serious incident of pesticide contamination in Japan.

The outbreak of Salmonella Stanley infection in California and two other states has been traced to a product called cashew cheese, which as the name suggests is made mainly from raw cashew nuts rather than milk. According to the FDA, the manufacturer, a company called The Cultured Kitchen, imports its cashews from Southeast Asia, which happens to be where the rare strain of Salmonella responsible for the outbreak is almost exclusively found. Not quite a smoking gun perhaps, but a pretty good clue as to where to start looking for a source. Meanwhile in Japan, at least 890 people are reported to have been sickened by frozen foods laced with the pesticide malathion at concentrations 2.6 million times higher than permitted. The manufacturer, Maruha Nichiro Holdings, has recalled around 6.4 million bags of various frozen products in response, but the involvement of the local police in the investigation suggests that deliberate contamination is at least suspected. Nothing has been found in the production process that could account for such high levels of pesticide.

But what can we expect from the rest of the year? I can fairly confidently predict that there will be plenty more outbreaks of foodborne illness as the months pass, although hopefully we will not see a rash of deliberate contamination incidents. It also seems likely that concerns over antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria will grow and that more food poisoning outbreaks will be caused by multiple-resistant strains. Just this week we have reported research suggesting that using certain common biocides at sub-lethal levels to clean food processing plants could contribute to the development of resistance. At the risk of being a bore about this issue, I really believe it’s time it was taken more seriously, but I fear that it may already be too late to save some very useful clinical drugs being rendered ineffective.

My final – probably rash – prediction is that a completely unexpected food safety problem will emerge from left field to create a whole new set of challenges for the food industry. This happens every few years and past examples include Listeria, acrylamide, melamine and so on. By my reckoning we are about due for another game changer, but on the plus side the food safety infrastructure is probably stronger than it has ever been and better able to respond. I don’t want to be alarmist, but it wouldn’t do to be complacent. Happy New Year!

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