How safe is imported food?

Last week 22 tonnes of imported Irish cheddar were destroyed when found to be contaminated with deadly E.coli bacteria. How safe is imported food really?

According to Gareth Lloyd, Managing Director of Ecowize, a leading hygiene and sanitation company servicing the South African food and healthcare sector, the cheddar contamination incident highlights the issue of safety standards of imported foodstuffs.

He says that as more components are added into the supply chain, it becomes more difficult to guarantee the hygiene and safety of the end product.

By “supply chain”, food industry specialists mean the length of time and the number of steps it takes to get a foodstuff from the farm to your plate: the longer the route, the greater the potential for it to become contaminated. Imported food has a much longer supply chain, involving complex crucial elements like longer periods of refrigeration, than food sourced locally.

Says Lloyd: “With a longer supply chain, logistics and hazards become harder to control. In developing countries, with poorer infrastructure, the hygiene levels may be lower and the hazards of the longer supply chain higher.”

But the increased risk for imports being contaminated extends to those from the developed world too. The “cheddar incident” involved a first-world product, after all.

“Some countries have excellent food safety standards – Australian meat products for example. But standards for poultry and pork in Europe, let’s say, are really only just standard.”

What about checks done on imports when they arrive? We simply do not have the capacity and infrastructure to test all food imports, says Lloyd.

“It’s one in a million products that are tested. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States is only able to inspect about 1% of imports.”

“I’m not saying that it’s bad to buy imported – there are some great products – but just that we need to be aware of the risks and keep demanding better regulation.”

How to avoid contaminated food
Consumers and retailers should make sure a foodstuff looks and smells “OK”, read labels and check expiry dates.

Unfortunately, says Lloyd, that may not always be sufficient.

“Not all bacteria change the smell and taste of food. There will always be bacteria on food, but it’s a matter of safe and dangerous levels. The shelf-life is related to how long it takes before bacterial growth gets to levels that will cause illness. With E.coli, for example, you only need a low level to make you sick. In the case of some other food-borne bacteria, like Salmonella, you need a higher level of exposure.”

The process of bacterial growth continues in your fridge too:

“People often don’t check to see if a product should be frozen or just refrigerated. In the food industry, we need to measure and maintain refrigeration temperatures very accurately, and home fridges aren’t too accurate. They should be set at between 0 and 4 degrees; I’d be surprised if most home fridges are below 4. At 5-20 degrees – that’s like fertilizer for bacteria.”

More on how to avoid food poisoning

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, November 2011, Health24

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