In spite of all progress food technology has made, food safety environment has not improved much with scores of food poisoning episodes reported from all over the world. Whether the contamination comes from microbes or chemical substances or processing artifacts, existing knowledge and capability are insufficient to deal with the situation. Interestingly most serious cases of food contamination come from the developed world either due to the extremely sensitive GI system the population there has or because of highly efficient reporting and documentation system in place for food related incidences.
It is true that many types of biological, chemical and physical sources of contamination do exist and newer sources are emerging constantly due to recycling efforts, product reformulation, product counterfeiting and other such activities. Neither the food industry nor the safety management agencies are keeping quite, constantly developing improved technology and practices to help further protect the consuming public. These efforts involve continuous quality verification, state-of-the-art analytics-based risk assessment procedures besides quick "track and trace" systems. Industry cannot be faulted if it strives to reduce input costs for manufacturing the products without compromising on quality and safety. It must be admitted that most technical break through developments in risk alleviation have come from industry, especially the instrumentation group though Universities and public funded scientific organizations also pitch in with their own contribution.
The problems of food industry are understandable because the very face of this industry has seen tremendous changes during the last two decades. With the world moving towards a conceptual "village without borders" due to the advent of WTO, global sourcing and fast distribution contingencies have greatly accentuated the risk of large-scale food contamination incidences. One has to only recall the recent Sudan I dye ingredient episode which created quite a stir among food safety agencies world over. This dye, long banned from using in food products, is a proven carcinogen but was used for admixing with natural red chili powder to enhance product appeal. Imagine the scare this had generated necessitating a host of product recalls and causing a major global incident. It was much later that safety authorities realized that this contaminated product had entered the supply chain which prompted the recall of over 600 processed food products made with this ingredient causing heavy financial losses to many major international food companies.
Food industry being a dynamic sector strives continuously to innovate and in this process many new sources of contamination are created unknowingly though they are traced later for avoiding or minimizing their adverse effect on the consumer. After all product reformulation, material recycling and constant unearthing of evidence against safety of one or the other ingredients being used are inevitable for which remedial measures need to be found. Similarly many processors constantly try to reformulate their food products with ingredients that help lower costs or improve the health benefits. Such attempts can trigger of unanticipated changes in the anti-bacterial properties like water activity which needs to be addressed.
Though one can derive satisfaction from the extent of progress achieved by food scientists in evolving safer processes and more sensitive testing protocols, the ground reality is that the number of incidents of food borne illnesses reported world over does not reflect any serious decline in food related health afflictions. The number of incidents and their severity seem to be relatively constant year to year and in a country like the US, this translates into 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325 000 hospitalizations, 5000 deaths and billions of dollars in costs. This can be attributed to poor producing and manufacturing operations by the industry and indifferent food safety practices on the part of the consumer. It is not realized that a single, highly publicized incident of food poisoning has the potential to devastate brand value or even destroy an enterprise. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the industry is to identify and deploy new technologies that can prevent contaminated product from reaching the consumer more effectively as well as technology that can help minimize the impact of incidents that do occur.