Food is a major determinant of health, nutritional status and productivity of the population. Therefore, it is essential that the food we consume is wholesome and safe. Unsafe food can lead to a large number of food-borne diseases. You may have seen reports in the newspapers about health problems caused by contaminated or adulterated foods. Globally, foodborne illness is a major problem of public health concern. In India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in September 2010 stated that more than 300 million episodes of acute diarrhea occur every year in children less than five years of age. Food-borne illness can not only result in mortality but can damage trade and tourism, lead to loss of earnings, unemployment and litigation and thus can impede economic growth, and therefore food safety and quality have gained worldwide significance.
Food safety and quality are important at the home level, but are critical in large scale food production and processing, and also where food is freshly prepared and served. In the past, many foods were processed at home. Advancement in technology and processing, larger per capita incomes and better purchasing power as well as increased consumer demand have led to a variety of products of processed foods, food for health / functional foods being manufactured. Safety of such foods needs to be assessed.
Quality of food stuff, raw as well as processed is of public health concern and must be addressed. In the past decade, safety challenges faced globally as well as in India have changed significantly and issues related to food quality and food safety have gained tremendous importance.
Food safety means assurance that food will not cause any harm to the consumers. An understanding of food safety is improved by defining two other concepts – toxicity and hazard.
Toxicity is the capacity of a substance to produce harm or injury of any kind under any conditions.
Hazard is the relative probability that harm or injury will result when substance is not used in a prescribed manner and quantity. Hazards can be physical, chemical and biological causing harmful / adverse effects on the health of consumers.
Physical hazard is any physical material not normally found in food, which causes illness or injury and includes wood, stones, parts of pests, hair etc.
Chemical hazards are chemicals or deleterious substances which may be intentionally or un-intentionally added to foods. This category of hazards includes pesticides, chemical residues, toxic metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, preservatives, food colours and other additives.
Biological hazards are living organisms and include microbiological organisms. Those micro-organisms which are associated with food and cause of diseases are termed food-borne pathogens. There are two types of food-borne diseases from microbial pathogens—infections and poisoning.
Food infection /Food Poisoning results from ingestion of live pathogenic organisms which multiply in the body and cause disease. Salmonella is a classic example. This organism exists in the intestinal tract of animals. Raw milk and eggs are also sources. Heat destroys Salmonella, however, inadequate cooking allows some organisms to survive. Often Salmonella is spread through cross-contamination. This could happen when a cook cuts raw meat/poultry on a chopping board and without cleaning uses it for another food which does not involve any cooking, such as salad. Food may become infected by Salmonella if an infected food handler does not wash hands with soap after using bathroom and before touching food. Salmonella can reproduce very quickly and double their number every 20 minutes. The symptoms of Salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
Food intoxication: Some bacteria produce harmful toxins which are present in food even if pathogen has been killed. Organisms produce toxins when the food has not been hot enough or cold enough. Toxins in food cannot be detected by smell, appearance or taste. Hence foods which smell and appear good are not necessarily safe. One example of such an organism is Staphylococcus aureus. Such organisms exist in air, dust, water. They are also present in the nasal passage, throat and on skin, hair of 50 per cent of healthy individuals. People who carry this organism, contaminate food if they touch these places on body while food handling. Diarrhea is also one of the symptoms of this contamination.
Parasites can also cause infestation, e.g., worm infestation by tape worm in pork. In addition to this, food can be infested by pests and insects.
Among the various hazards, biological hazards are an important cause of food-borne illnesses. In spite of all the efforts in the area of food safety, microbial food-borne pathogens are still a serious concern and new pathogens continue to emerge.
The term food quality refers to attributes that influence a product’s value to consumers. This includes both negative attributes such as spoilage, contamination, adulteration, food safety hazards as well as positive attributes such as colour, flavour, texture. It is therefore a holistic concept integrating factors such as nutritional traits, sensorial properties (colour, texture, shape, appearance, taste, flavour, odour), social considerations, safety. Safety is a preliminary attribute and precursor of quality. In order to ensure that foods are safe and of good quality, across the world various governments and international bodies have laid down food standards that manufacturers/suppliers are expected to adhere to.
Thus, all food service providers (those involved at all stages of pre-preparation and preparation/processing, packaging and service) should adhere to good manufacturing practices and ensure food safety. Salient points to be borne in mind are:
Effective food standards and control systems are required to integrate quality into every aspect of food production and service, to ensure the supply of hygienic, wholesome food as well as to facilitate trade within and between nations. There are four levels of standards which are well coordinated.
The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 (PFA, 1954) was enacted by the Government of India to prevent adulteration of food. The Act has been amended as per need, numerous times (over 200 amendments). All food products manufactured in India, or imported and sold in India have to meet the requirements prescribed under this Act. In addition to PFA, there are other Orders or Acts that help to ensure quality of specific foods such as:
Voluntary product certification: There are voluntary grading and marking schemes such as ISI mark of BIS and Agmark. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) deals with standardization of various consumer goods including food products and runs a voluntary certification scheme known as ‘ISI’ mark for processed foods. Agmark is a voluntary scheme of certification of agricultural products (raw and processed) for safeguarding the health of consumers. Since the government had several regulations and laws, food industry found it cumbersome. A need was therefore felt to integrate all such laws for regulating the quality of food. With this in view, Indian Government has passed Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, to bring the different pieces of legislation pertaining to food safety under one umbrella.
FSSAI, 2006: The objects of the Act are to consolidate the laws relating to food. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India was established for laying down science-based standards for food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption. The Act has provisions for maintenance of hygienic conditions in and around manufacturing premises, assessment and management of risk factors to human health in a scientific manner, which were not specified in the PFA. The FSSAI reflects the international shift in food laws, from compositional standards or vertical standards to safety or horizontal standards.
There have been several international organizations and agreements which have played a role in enhancing food safety, quality and security, facilitating research and trade. The major organizations which are playing a key role are:
ISO 9000 is an international reference for quality requirements. It is concerned with “Quality Management” of an organization. Adoption of these standards is voluntary.
Over the years, issues related to food safety and quality have gone beyond just the avoidance of food-borne pathogens, chemical toxicants and other hazards. A food hazard can enter/come into the food at any stage of the food chain, therefore, adequate control throughout the food chain is essential. Food safety and quality can be ensured through:
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are a part of quality assurance to ensure that manufacturers/processors take proactive steps to ensure that their products are safe.
Good Handling Practices (GHP) indicate a comprehensive approach from the farm to the store or consumer, in order to identify potential sources of risk and indicates what steps and procedures are taken to minimize the risk of contamination.
Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) is a means of providing assurance about safety of food. HACCP is an approach to food manufacture and storage in which raw materials and each individual step in a specific process are considered in detail and evaluated for its potential to contribute to the development of pathogenic micro-organisms or other food hazards.
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