By Dr S V N Vijayendra
The world is celebrating June 7 as ‘World Food Safety Day’ with a theme of “food safety, everyone’s business” for the first time. More than 200 diseases are spreading through foods. Unsafe foods are taking the lives of millions of people every year. Realising the importance and need for safe foods to have food security and zero hunger, the United Nations initiated this day in its Assembly held in December 2018.
Food safety aims to keep foods safe all the times starting from the crop/ rearing stage to till it reaches the consumers, passing through various stages like harvesting, processing, storage, distribution and preparation by the end users in their homes, hotels or catering establishments. To call it safe food, food should not have any hazard that can hurt or make people ill.
In the context of food safety, a “hazard” can be classified as any substance or agent present in food that has the ability or the potential to cause an adverse health effect to the consumer. The substance can be a biological, chemical or physical agent and safe food must be free from all these hazards.
Lack of protection against harmful extraneous materials like, glass pieces, pieces of bones, stones, thorns, wood (toothpicks) and metal pieces, dead insects, could result in physical contamination of foods. These items may cause injuries like cuts, abrasions in the mouth and throat, damage teeth or dental prostheses or gastrointestinal distress.
Foreign object complaints involving injury or illness are associated most often with soft drinks followed by baby foods, bakery foods, cocoa/ chocolate products, fruits, cereals, vegetables and seafood. A thorough inspection of raw foods and other food ingredients by using screens, shakers, air blasts, filters, x-ray machines, magnets, food radar systems, etc., depending upon the volumes being handled, can eliminate these hazards from the food. Educating the food handlers about the various hazards and its consequences and how to prevent them can help reduce the physical hazards during processing stages.
Chemical hazards in food may be naturally occurring or may be added during the processing of food. Harmful chemicals at high levels have been associated with acute cases of food-borne illness and can be responsible for chronic illness at lower levels. Some of the chemical hazards are naturally occurring chemicals (toxins) of plant (glycoalkaloids in potatoes) or microorganisms (aflatoxin, petulin, etc.), pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, veterinary drugs, antibiotics, cleaning / sanitising substances, heavy metals (lead, mercury, etc), radioactive compounds and polychlorinated biphenyls.
These substances may cause allergies, food intolerance, metabolic disorders, acute toxicity such as gastrointestinal and neurological disturbances or acts as anti-nutritional agents. Aflatoxin, present in spilt groundnuts is a food hazard and the concern is on its ability to cause liver cancer when people are exposed to high levels for a prolonged time. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex, 2009) has set maximum levels for many chemical hazards that are an inherent risk in certain foods.
The biological hazards include bacteria, viruses and parasites. Presence of pathogenic micro-organisms like Salmonella, Vibrio, Bacillus cereus, Listeria, Clostridium perfringens, etc., which can cause food poisoning, can cause harmful effects on the consumers. There are often more news reports on food poisoning cases caused by bacteria. Spoilage bacteria do not normally cause illness, however, when consumed in very large numbers, they can cause a gastrointestinal disturbance.
Refrigeration of perishable food is one of the common ways to retard the spoilage process. Abuse of antibiotics is leading to the development of resistance in these pathogens and the resistant bacteria are entering human beings through foods.
Food safety is a multi-sectorial and multi-disciplinary aspect. Unsafe food affects health as well as the economy of the country. Following good manufacturing practice takes care to avoid much of physical, chemical and biological hazard, thus providing the preventive action. Adopting good sanitation and hygiene methods can eliminate entry of pathogenic microorganisms into foods thus making foods safe. Everyone has a role in achieving food safety. Increasing awareness among food handlers and consumers about safe foods is the main moto of this WFSD. (The writer is Traffic Warden and member, City Traffic Advisory Committee, Mysuru, and is a regular contributor to City Today and a prominent crusader for the upright values in our society)