Next generation of food safety

By Jennifer Ronholm and Xiaonan Lu, Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry, McGill University

As human beings, we each require daily nourishment. However, food consumption has never—and can never —be completely risk-free. In Canada, Health Canada is responsible for establishing thresholds of acceptable risk that correlates to a desired level of consumer protection. Since scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and novel foods are continually introduced to the marketplace, existing thresholds must be regularly adjusted. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for enforcing safety thresholds established by Health Canada. Together these institutions run programs to improve food safety, such as guiding industry in applying hazard and critical control point (HACCP) principals to prevent food borne illnesses and improving food traceability so that sources of infection can be determined quickly and accurately.

New era of food safety—smart food safety
The new era of smarter food safety blueprint was developed by the US FDA a few years ago and it is centered around four core elements, namely tech-enabled traceability, smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response, new business models and retail modernization, and food safety culture. Working together, these elements will aid in creating a safer and more digital, traceable food system. This new generation of food safety embraces advanced technology, big data, digital tools, and automation that can facilitate rapid, accurate, sensitive monitoring of the food supply chain in a user-friendly manner. The ideal smart food traceability system can track the location of any food, the ingredients it contains, and packaging at any location in the supply chain from producers to consumers. There will be a database about the product in the traceability system. If food recalls are required, a traceability system will aid in quickly identifying the source of contamination, enabling parties to take effective recall actions to protect consumers from the contaminated food.

Introduction of whole genome sequencing and next generation sequencing for food safety
In Canada, the decision to recall food items is science-based and made using three equally weighted streams of evidence: 1) Epidemiology, 2) Microbiology, and 3) Food Safety Investigation. Within the microbiology stream of evidence, the phylogenetic relatedness of all food and clinical isolates within the investigation must be established. This information is used to understand the likely food-hazard combination that is responsible for the outbreak. Whole genome sequencing, paired with bioinformatic analysis and interpretation, has now been established as the gold standard with which to establish the phylogenetic relationship between isolates. Starting from an isolated colony, a genomic sequence can be produced in two to three days. Older technologies allowed phylogenetic relationships to be established based on tens of datapoints, at most, and this resulted in problems with both over- and under-discrimination. However, whole genome sequencing allows the comparison of thousands of core-gene sequences in a few hours—allowing a certainty in phylogeny that was never before possible.

Introduction of novel sensing techniques for food safety
Sensors have been massively developed for rapid diagnostics of food chemical and microbiological hazards. A specific sensor ideally includes a separation element and a detection element. The separation element allows recognition and separation of the target compounds/microbes from the complicated food sample matrices. Then, the detection element achieves sensitive and rapid detection via generating a signal as readout. Separation element is more critical than detection element as the interference from food sample matrices is highly challenging. Compared to the classical biomedical sample matrices (blood, urine, sputum, body fluids), food sample matrices are more complicated, especially solid foods such as meat and fresh produce. The effective separate elements for construction of a sensor include, but are not limited to, antibody, aptamer, and molecularly imprinted polymers.

IoT, cloud computing and artificial intelligence for food safety
With the advancement of the Internet-of-Things (IoT), more data on food can be transmitted and processed in real-time. IoT allows things and objectives to be connected anytime and anywhere. It is growing rapidly and will become popular in food safety. To effectively use these data, machine learning is highly demanded. On the other aspect, cloud computing enables users to perform complex computation without the expense of maintaining costly hardware and software. It helps store, share, manage, and analyze the data from food sensors and identifiers, which are accumulated along with the movement of food in the supply chains. Particularly, the fifth-generation (5G) network as a new generation technology has more bandwidth, enables real-time data transfer with low latency, and supplies gigabit connections without location restrictions.

FSMA and HACCP for the food industry
HACCP has been widely accepted and applied by the Canadian food industry. It has been effectively functional in responding to various chemical and microbiological contaminants in the agri-food commodities. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is still relatively new to Canadian food producers as it has been transforming the food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness (HACCP) to preventing it. FSMA is enacted in response to significant changes in the global agri-food system and in our understanding of foodborne illnesses and their consequences to our consumers. For example, we now realize that preventable foodborne illnesses are a critical public health issue and also a threat to the economics of the agri-food system.

Improving food safety
While consuming food will never be risk-free, modern safety management practices like HACCP, paired with new technologies like IoT, food traceability, and whole genome sequencing are being used to improve risk management and improve the safety of the food supply. It is important to remember that risk analysis and risk mitigation are science-based processes, any approach to managing the food supply chain will also involve other concepts such as culture, values, and consumer preferences. Technologies can be developed and deployed to improve food safety without having to limit food choices to manage safety.

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