Virtual Exchange: Food Safety
Global Food Outlook Virtual Exchange: Food Safety
On March 27, our Global Food Outlook program hosted the first in a series of virtual exchanges about the future of food, this one focused on food safety. Program Co-Director Miriam Lueck Avery led a discussion featuring two food scientists, Tejas Bhatt and Lesley Chesson. Participants from around the globe watched live and submitted questions to the panelists.
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Tejas Bhatt: a holistic approach to complex food systems
Tejas Bhatt (@tejasbhatt) manages the Food Safety Programs at the Institute of Food Technologists, where, among many other things, he is tracking emerging technologies to support food safety and defense in a globalized food system. Tejas simulated a model of the domestic food supply chain and discovered very plausible scenarios where targeted food terrorism could quickly spread through the distributed system to affect millions before any contamination was detected.
During the exchange, he advocated taking an “all hazards” approach, thinking about the system holistically to ensure safe food for all. For example, Tejas advocates for the use of social networks to intervene on foodborne disease, just as Google famously detected a flu outbreak before the Centers for Disease Control. If food hazards could be detected in the myriad food pictures that people post online, everyday habits could contribute to early detection and even prediction of food hazards.
Tejas also drew parallels between food safety and the aerospace industry – various complex parts and pieces come together through a long supply chain to make an airplane (or a food product), and both have high stakes for safety. According to Tejas, NASA’s manned mission to Mars will have a dramatic impact on how we prepare and store food. New preservative techniques could radically extend shelf life, both for global trade and storage of locally produced foods.
Lesley Chesson: safety through authenticity
The global food system’s complexity inspires analytical chemist Lesley Chesson's work; she uses a process called stable isotope analysis to verify the origin and authenticity of food. Although the desire to know the origins of our food is growing, current solutions involve relying on sometimes misleading labels or developing personal relationships between consumers, growers, and producers. Localized production might instill trust in consumers, but it also hinders regulatory inspection and does not address food origin and authenticity problems at the global scale. Lesley advocates for more transparency across the entire food system, which includes empowering individual consumers and producers to create transparency where it otherwise doesn’t exist. Lesley believes that soon consumers will be able to test their own food for origin and movement through the food system, using tools that analyze food’s actual chemicals to reveal what a label might not. New, smaller, and more user-friendly technology in the hands of both producers and consumers could help fill the food system’s gaps in the future.
- The conversation touched on how to best communicate complex safety information into actionable information. Lesley envisioned a future with interactive labels that only provide the most salient information for individual consumer preferences. Tejas suggested that inert additives could act like a chemical barcode, carrying complex information in a form much harder to forge than packaging or labels.
- Tejas also speculated about the implications of IFTF Ten Year Forecast scenarios on microbial management. Probiotics and prebiotics research could lead to microbial products that consumers sprinkle on food before consuming, placing the ability to ensure food safety in consumers’ hands.
- Development efforts and the food industry often view food security, safety, and healthfulness as sequential. From a holistic systems perspective, all three are equally important and can simultaneously exist. However, both speakers acknowledged that food safety and healthfulness are often wrongfully considered the same thing. For instance, recent attempts to remove sugar from the Food and Drug Administration’s “Generally Recognized as Safe” list are undoubtedly within the scope of food healthfulness, yet sugar content does not necessarily deem a food safe or unsafe. We’ve seen foodborne illness from low-sugar foods like spinach. According to our speakers, the problem is incomplete labeling, pervasive use of sugar as an additive in foods otherwise assumed to be healthy, and obscurity in the food system that prevent consumers from determining the safety and healthfulness of food they choose to eat.
- While the highly distributed nature of the food system creates vulnerabilities, both Lesley and Tejas are innovatively using new technologies to become more proactively resilient and improve the future of food safety--and giving consumers the ability to proactively ensure their own food safety.
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