Food safety has always been an important issue, but similar to workplace health and safety its profile is growing. Assuring food safety, has become more complex with new consumer-ready products being sold in many new international markets, new production technologies, lengthening supply chains, multiplicity of ingredients and suppliers, and growing potential for malicious behaviour. The immediacy of media and social media mean that a local incident can become global overnight.
Company reputations can be quickly damaged by a food safety incident, and restoring reputation and trust in the marketplace can be a lengthy and costly task. Food safety, once the domain of technical and production functions, has become a company-wide, end-to-end business responsibility and consequently must become part of board oversight of company activities and performance.
While the headlines may focus on a few high-profile food safety events, the New Zealand food industry has a sound history of producing and marketing safe foods. Safe food and our known food safety systems are part of the New Zealand story – a competitive advantage – and this brings many opportunities for international trade. It also allows New Zealand to work cooperatively with its many customers and efficiently resolve any issues that arise.
Changes in our food supply and lifestyle have led to a broader range of causes for, and consequences of, unsafe food. Unsafe food takes many forms but is generally recognised as food where a biological, chemical or physical hazard is present and where that hazard could lead to an adverse health effect. Biological hazards include microbiological contamination such as pathogenic bacteria (e.g., Salmonella), fungi or naturally occurring toxins (e.g., tutin or marine biotoxins) and parasites. Chemical hazards include naturally occurring food allergens (e.g., peanut, milk), chemical contaminants and undeclared food additives or introduced contaminants such as agricultural residues.
Physical hazards include foreign matter such as glass or metal.
For an unsafe food to cause illness or an adverse health effect there must be exposure to the hazard, usually through consumption of the food, sufficient to cause an adverse effect. Conversely, where the hazard is present at non-significant levels and/or the food consumption is low, adverse effects are less likely.
Foodborne illness or adverse health effects can cause lasting harm to consumers and to families. There are many local and international incidents that have resulted in serious harm, some leading to fatalities.
In 2008, melamine adulteration of infant foods in China resulted in more than 50,000 children being hospitalised and six deaths. Many children who were hospitalised face ongoing medical care. In Australia, in 2012–2013 Listeria contamination in cheese was linked to three deaths.
In New Zealand Listeria contamination of food supplied to a hospital was linked to two deaths and two other people were affected.
Food allergen incidents can occur rapidly and without warning, and have resulted in several deaths in Australia and New Zealand over the last decade.
Food safety incidents can also bring lasting damage to companies. Recalls, legal proceedings, penalties and the ensuing publicity can result in loss of earnings, loss of reputation and loss of consumer trust in brands or local authorities. There are many instances around the world where food safety failures have led to business failure.
Recalling food is one way of reducing risk, through reducing consumers’ exposure to the hazard. Recalls are “after the fact” and consumers may have already been exposed to harm.
Each food safety event has the potential to cause serious harm to consumers. During a recall, the company’s reputation is at risk and crisis management and communications processes during this event are critical in protecting consumers, and in protecting the business. This is a high-risk situation for the business – a situation that boards should consider as a key risk and develop risk management strategies accordingly.
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