There’s been a lot of discussion in these blogs about developing smartphone-based sensors to detect any possible contaminant that threatens our health. But… who should ensure that the food is safe and meets the expected standards? As you can see in the image below, many people are involved in the food chain: farmers during production, operators during the processing, carriers during distribution, workers in restaurants and supermarkets, and of course, you, the final consumer. The contamination might be present in the raw materials, but it can also be caused by contact of food with any contaminated equipment during the food process and transport. Moreover, even if good operation practices are followed during the process, it is really difficult to completely avoid food contamination, especially if we’re talking of environmental contaminants. That is why the approach that’s being followed to tackle this problem is not to ensure that no contamination happens at all, but to provide every person involved in the food chain with a tool to detect any contamination as soon as possible to discard the contaminated batch before it is lost throughout the food chain. This means that there is no a specific person that has to be responsible for everyone else’s safety. Instead, everyone in the chain has to do his part. Something similar to herd immunity: if everyone collaborates, we might be protecting the final consumer that has decided to not test his food, but if the control tests are not run by a minimum number of people, the contaminated food might end up in our meal.
In my particular case, I’m working in the development of a sensor to detect Mycobacterium bovis in dairy products. This means that the main contamination point comes from the raw materials: the cows get infected by the bacteria and it reaches the milk that is being collected from the animal. In this case, the tests run in the farm at the production level are extremely important, as the farmers need to make sure that their animals and the milk they produce is tuberculosis-free. However, this tests may fail if the bacteria concentration is very low or if the animals have been infected in the weeks previous to the test. That is why the collaboration of everyone else in the food chain would still be necessary to make sure that we are producing safe food, even if the focus point should be at the production level. In other situations, however, the main contamination point is found during the processing, where the equipment might get contaminated with certain bacteria due to favourable conditions during the process for them to grow, or due to poor hygiene conditions. But again, that doesn’t mean that no precautions need to be taken in different steps of the chain.
A different situation might be found with some spoilage microorganisms, that would preferentially grow if bad storage practices are used. This responsibility falls (mainly) to the final consumer, who should strictly follow the storage conditions and consume the products before the provided expiration date that guarantees that no spoilage bacteria will be grown if properly stored.
As you can see there is a main focus point depending on the contaminant at issue, but that doesn’t exclude everyone else to be cautious and to assume that the food received from the previous step is going to be a 100% safe. It is not a matter of distrusting the food chain, but a matter of collaborating in building a stronger chain that can identify and discard contaminated products, either for natural or human causes.
I hope this helps to make people aware of the risks of food contamination and the responsibility that we all have to take to prevent it.
See you soon!