Climate change, flooding, droughts, energy price rises, a squeeze on the economy could all have consequences on food safety. But how and when?
A recent study provides one example: it found that the melting of the Arctic ice is causing persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, that were trapped in snow and ice to be re-released into the environment. These industrial chemicals can build up in food and water supplies, and accumulate in animal body fat, which has potential implications for food safety. Measures are now in place restrict new industrial releases of POPs, so it’s unlikely to put us back where we were several decades ago in terms of POP levels in the environment, but this kind of effect might undermine efforts to reduce the levels of these chemicals.
This isn’t an unexpected occurrence – it was predicted some time ago that climate change would lead to the re-release of these chemicals – but there is now data to support the theory. Similarly, the Agency is also funding work investigating the occurrence of compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in food in the UK. This sort of forward-looking analysis is essential in order to understand possible changes under different scenarios, identify what the consequences could be and what can be done to mitigate the risk.
The FSA is also involved in horizon scanning activities in collaboration, to identify possible food safety risks before they emerge. For example, with Defra and others, the Agency is sponsoring a Centre for Environmental Risk and Futures (CERF) at Cranfield University. The centre will provide horizon scanning and futures studies across the food and environment areas to help us identify and address potential new threats and opportunities to delivering safer food in the long-term.
Some of the potential issues we are interested in exploring are: how could increases in environmental temperatures affect the growth and distribution of harmful bacteria in the food chain? Could increases in energy prices lead to a decrease in use or inadequate refrigeration? Is there an increased risk of flooding and how might this affect chemical and microbiological contamination? And, more generally, how might the food supply system change over the forthcoming decades, and what will that mean for our work on food safety?
What do you think the future priorities for food safety should be? What wider developments might help us, or knock us off course?