Food Safety: Scoops and Predictions for 2012

The art of predicting a future event is tricky, usually unscientific and in many respects unreliable.  Anyone who can predict the future or outcome of worldly events would be held in high regard by leaders across the globe.  But there are instances where future events can be predicted with some degree of accuracy, such as weather patterns and their impact on travel, flight schedules and even future agriculture production – months in advance.  Another example is predicting trends in food safety.  Looking back on the current year, there are a number of documented cues that could provide a glimpse into future food safety trends.  Here a few areas where predicting future trends in food safety might prove helpful.

Consumer Confidence

Taking a quick look back into 2011 we saw that consumer confidence in the food supply remained steady.  According to the IFIC Foundation’s 2011 Food and Health Survey, one-half of Americans indicated they were confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply.  This percentage has remained steady in recent years notwithstanding a series of high profile food safety events such as food related recalls in the U.S. and in Europe.  Given the nature of food recalls and the amount of media interest and coverage that accompany them, consumers will be aware of any and all food safety issues in the media, however consumer confidence is likely to remain steady in 2012, with a slight chance that it may increase if no major incidences occur. 

The Risk of Foodborne Illness

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 6 Americans suffers from some form of foodborne illness, is hospitalized or may even die from a foodborne illness.  CDC also states that these numbers have decreased since the 1999 report due to improvements in the quality of the data and newer methods used to estimate foodborne diseases.  Just because the numbers of illness have decreased doesn’t necessarily mean we are automatically safe from foodborne illness.  Individuals who are immune compromised, older Americans, pregnant women and young children are most at-risk for foodborne illness, which makes food safety and safe food handling such an important issue to always remember when selecting and preparing food.  To that end, consumers are more likely to hear a message about the risk to those they love who may be immune compromised.

Chemicals in Food

As we’ve seen in the past, the topic of food safety is beginning to expand beyond the typical food recall or microbiological food contamination.  Food safety encompasses food allergy management for food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators as well as proper management by consumers when eating away from home.  In addition to strategies to keep food safe before, during and after production – whether on the farm or at home, food safety is addressed at all stages from farm to fork.

Today’s food basket is rich in variety and selection.  But did you know that our food supply is also made up of nutrients and chemicals which play vital roles in enhancing safety, nutrition, flavor and texture?  We have been hearing a lot about chemicals in food lately and for a number of reasons.  A number of chemicals are safely used to enhance safety through packaging, and add texture or taste.  There will continue to be chemicals that occur naturally as part of the cooking process – in a plant, at a restaurant or even at home.

For example, naturally occurring compounds such as acrylamide have been in food since we began putting food to fire.  They are not added to food but are formed during basic cooking processes.  These types of chemicals are being studied and will continue to be evaluated for any potential impact on human health.  Today, acrylamide is formed in a number of different foods from crackers, to bread, to cereals to coffee – so eliminating one or two foods could not completely eliminate acrylamide from your diet.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidance for industry regarding acrylamide and other such naturally occurring compounds that are formed during the cooking process.  In addition, FDA and other health officials agree that a diet rich in variety is also beneficial for a number of reasons beyond any concerns raised by acrylamide.    

Tell Me Something I Didn’t Know . . .

When making predictions, we as food safety educators and health professionals become vigilant and focus our attention on those issues and areas where we expect the most movement or attention.  The irony of it all is that we may miss identifying a potential area of concern that may need the most attention, especially where food safety is most critical.  As we look toward 2012 and beyond, let us as food safety educators and health professionals, work together to provide the public with practical information to make the best choices by putting the risk of food safety in the proper perspective.