Food safety and climate change

Climate change is having a significant impact on the world; from animals near to extinction to Venice flooding; the effects of climate change on the global environment have been catastrophic thus far. These effects have spilt over into the food industry, and a behavioural shift is needed to assure our future.

The reality

Human activities cause increased concentrations of greenhouse gases, resulting in global warming. These gases include a contribution from the food supply chain. Carbon dioxide levels, as one example, are expected to reach a concentration of 550 ppm by 2050 – only 30 years from now. Let that sink in. What about our children, and our grandchildren? Do they not deserve access to safe and nutritious food, and enough of it? The safety and accessibility of food are the things most at risk of suffering the effects of climate change.

There are many pathways by means of which climate change has an impact on food safety, including temperature and weather fluctuations. The agricultural sector is already taking a knock: due to erratic weather conditions, crop yields are low, and farmers have seen an influx of pests and disease. The risk of contamination in food is increased by the resultant increased use of veterinary drugs, pesticides and chemical residues leaching into the soil and water sources used to cultivate livestock and food crops. Residues and heavy metals pollute crops, resulting in a negative effect on the long-term health of consumers.

In the short term, climate change is expected to result in modified persistence and occurrence of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other harmful microbes, leading to altered patterns in which foodborne diseases and the risk of toxic contamination occur. The increase in temperature and variability in rainfall, in particular, have a close relationship with the growth and survival of enteric bacteria, and the contamination risks of Escherichia coli and Salmonella in food are likely to increase.

It is well known that higher temperatures are associated with an increase in episodes of disease worldwide. Salmonella is a good example of a bacteria that has high-stress tolerance to pH and temperature changes, and may compete better against other pathogens because of this. Increased temperatures also lead to an increase in the rate of development of pathogens, resulting in more occurrences of the disease.

Hot and humid conditions cause heat stress in livestock, increasing their vulnerability to disease; and higher temperatures induced by climate change cause shifts in disease distribution. Additionally, an increase in the occurrence of zoonosis is emerging, as climate-change-related temperature increases facilitate the survival of zoonotic agents, such as the Ebola virus and swine flu outbreaks experienced recently – and perhaps also the current SARS-COV2 pandemic.

Another point to consider is the way foods are being packaged in an attempt to address climate change. For example, if a food processor changes from a type of packaging that has an established history of hindering or eliminating microbial growth to a new type of packaging that may be more ‘eco-friendly’, this can result in a change in the ecology of the food; which may lead to microbial hazards growing in the food that were not there before.

What now?

Food industry professionals are in a unique position to facilitate change, in order to decrease the impact their business has on climate change and ensure a better future; because all businesses, regardless of size, have a carbon footprint.

To facilitate change, a corporate social responsibility strategy must be woven into a company’s business model, becoming part of the company culture. In South Africa, corporate social responsibility is a type of self-regulation, and at this stage is entered into voluntarily. It aims to contribute to the sustainable development goals (SDGs): to eradicate hunger, decrease the impact of climate change and decrease wastage of water, to name a few.

In terms of practical solutions to decrease the impact industry has on climate, and the impact climate change has on food safety, one must establish a baseline.

Next steps:

  1. Measure and monitor water and energy usage in your facilities.
  2. Review farming spray programmes to include the use of biopesticides on crops.
  3. Test soil and water quality at farm level.
  4. Establish a testing schedule to include microbiological, pesticide and other contaminant testing* to ensure the safety of the products.

* As the climate changes and new hazards emerge, the way we test is also changing. With new technologies and advancements in the field of food testing, we can more accurately and effectively solve the problems encountered by the food industry. When looking at microbial testing advances, for example, we now have the advantage of using culture-free detection methods to get microbial results within minutes, as opposed to the days they usually take to culture. These include a variety of nucleic-acid testing methods, such as the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and next-generation meta-barcoding techniques to rapidly amplify microbiological genetic material. Another advancement in microbiological testing in foods is the development of tests that detect specific genes present in a microbe – for example, a pathogenicity gene.

A challenge with using these test methods is that interpretation of the results must be performed by a skilled professional. FACTS are specialists in customising analyses, and have the expertise to interpret complex test-method results.

Once one has the data, both small and large improvement steps can be implemented in the business model or strategy to develop an environmental policy and action plan. Some examples would be:

  1. Ensure all equipment and lights are switched off during downtime.
  2. Use buckets of clean water to clean non-food-contact surfaces such as floors and walls, instead of hosing areas down.
  3. Review and select suppliers that are more sustainable or green, to decrease the risk of contamination; an example is farms employing precision farming techniques that decrease the risk of microbial and pesticide contamination.

These steps may not seem likely to achieve much; but as Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. Because no one else will.”

FACTS strives to create an environment that is sustainable, and has expertise on the strategic development of policies and testing schedules that consider the impact of industry on climate change, and of climate change on food safety. We assist clients with comprehensive risk assessments, to eliminate hazards and safeguard our future. Contact us for more information.