Stefan Kuepper, vice president, food safety – Europe at Ecolab, said there is a shifting focus from communicating on technology and science to consumer interests and what they see as areas of concern which reflects the balance between risk on one hand and being safe on the other.
He explained the difference between being safe and a risk being always a hazard but looking at the probability of the incident happening and it being detectable.
Entering the yellow traffic light zone of risk
“In the EU, essentially what was been a legal principle, is the precautionary principle so absence of hard and good data means avoid that issue,” he told FoodQualityNews.
“The same holds essentially for the residue limits on contaminants in food and there are plenty that have been regulated, pesticide for one, animal drugs for another and toxins for a third.
“It has been working for the EU for quite some time and it made communication for the food companies fairly easy as it was either safe and legal and not detectable or it was not marketable. So a traffic light scheme, a very easy one, there is only green and red.”
Kuepper said a recent EU legislation is the Biocide Product Directive and regulation 528/2012 and the Commission had pledged to establish maximum residue levels (MRLs) for biocides.
“The Commission is prepared to move away from the past paradigm of equalling detection limits with MRLs and that will turn into a very muddy issue indeed with time.
“Moving forward we will have now a detection limit and higher than that value a MRL and above the MRL a zone of illegality but in-between there is a grey zone. You were not illegal yet there is something in there and would a consumer still feel safe knowing that there is something in there that isn’t native to food?
“So the traffic light gets more complex because where we had green and red we now enter a yellow sign that we need to deal with. We, meaning the hygiene, service and technology industry as well as our customers in the food industry.”
In Europe, microbiological, pesticide residue and toxin risks are mostly under control, said Kuepper.
“But what the consumer is concerned with is the underlying chronic issue of small doses and small amounts that you may take up with your food,” he said.
“Where there is little data available that are generally recognised as safe or where there is no data and only risk assessment available and that is a major concern to the lawmakers, the food industry, to Ecolab moving forward and most importantly the consumer.”
Kuepper said there are a couple of misconceptions around the topic.
“If you look at the current length and width of legislation coming out of Brussels you will see there are about 400 to 500 substances regulated with MRLs but if you look at what the hygiene industry is using in their cleaning and disinfection chemistry we are talking approximately 5,000 different chemicals,” he said.
“So there is a huge grey zone where there is currently no limits or thresholds available so Brussels is addressing the tip of the iceberg and the rest is left to some vague principals like as ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) or as low as technically feasible.
“This is also subject to change as science and technology advances and neither of those concepts will help the consumer feel safer looking at residue and ingredients with potential chronic impacts in his food.”
Communication to consumers
Kuepper said new technology also changes the game as what was thought to be safe, is turning into a risk again because something is seen where it previously has not been.
“We will mitigate the issue by reviewing, and the process has been started some time ago, whatever we have in our current portfolio and reduce that to the max as far as risk is concerned,” he said.
“We will rely on innovating in the space and the most promising concept is relying on what we call food quality ingredients, essentially “chemical compounds that are already native to food” and employ those to achieving cleanliness and hygiene surfaces.”
Changes are required in the food industry, according to Kuepper.
“They will have to deliberate each individually for themselves, how much of that yellow traffic light phase they are willing to accept. Possibly set up individual positive or a black list for certain ingredients subject to the risks groups to which their products do go,” he said.
“Devise new communication strategies on how to address the grey zone, how would you explain to a consumer ‘yes, there is a bit in there but science tells us it is safe, there is no risk’ [in the levels you are exposed to].
“That will also probably have impacts in the way GFSI, FSSC, BRC and IFS approach the HACCP principles today as they probably require being adapted to that new perceived issue that we now have to deal with.”
Kuepper said it sees a similar trend in the US.
“Sources in the US tell me, to their regret, there are more and more consumer concerns about non-native ingredients going well beyond what we have as a running joke here that Europe is concerned with chemicals predominantly whereas the US is afraid of bugs,” he said.
“People want to have more and more organic food which only has those ingredients in it that Mother Nature wanted to be in there in the first place.”
Validation is of growing importance, added Kuepper.
“The pharmaceutical industry could not survive without having proper validation processes in place. There is even a legal requirement,” he said.
“In the food industry, validated processes are almost non-existent. Some customers are using them to verify that they have good processes established that would prevent cross contamination with allergens.
“I had a discussion with the technical director of a company in Ireland and they are using a validated process to make sure there is no cross contamination with allergens. I think that is an example that could be a role model for our other customers, look at validation to safeguard processes and their brand.”
Meanwhile, Ecolab has sold the restroom cleaning business of the US operations of Swisher Hygiene to Enviro-Master International Franchise LLC.
Sales of the business, which Ecolab acquired in November last year, were $28m in 2015.
Ecolab continues to operate the warewashing, kitchen specialty, laundry and housekeeping cleaning and sanitizing products and services business of Swisher Hygiene, serving the foodservice, hospitality, retail and healthcare markets.