Despite all the technological advances of the past century, there is one basic thing that people have simply not yet managed to learn: to wash their hands. Diseases and germs will not spread so widely if people can only start doing this properly.
This was the message from Prof Stephen Forsythe, a retired professor in microbiology at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, and author of the Handbook "The Microbiology of Safe Food" which is widely prescribed to university students. He was the opening speaker at an afternoon session on the future role of science in maintaining food safety. The event, hosted by the Centre for Food Safety at Stellenbosch University's Department of Food Science, was widely supported by members of the local food industry.
Forsythe gave an overview of future trends that he thinks will impact on food safety matters. He mentioned the influence of climate change and a growth in insect farming and related products. He also noted that consumers are increasingly looking for more plant-based protein products, and food containing lower in additives. Antimicrobial resistance, which relates to the way in which germs have adapted to current drugs and treatment, is also a growing source of concern in the food industry.
"We have no other choice than to adapt to these trends, because they are here to stay," he mentioned.
Forsythe said most of the 8914 food products that were withdrawn from the market worldwide between 2008 and 2018 were raw fish, prepared food and nuts and fruit. This was mostly due to the occurrence of undeclared ingredients that could cause allergic reactions, and the prevalence of germs such as E. coli and Salmonella that are associated with food poisoning.
According to Forsythe, four cases of food poisoning are reported daily in the USA. He says that infections are a worry in aging populations. Older people are more susceptible to infections, and therefore standards around food safety should be intensified.
Forsythe says technology to test for incidences of disease-causing organisms have improved drastically over the past years. He added that many problems related to infections and germs can be curbed if people were just able to follow basic standards of hygiene in homes, factories and on farms.
Also among the speakers at the afternoon session were Prof Mieke Uyttendaele of the Department of Food Technology, Safety and Health at the University of Ghent (Belgium), and Prof Wilhelm Holtzapfel, president of the International Committee on Food Microbiology and Hygiene (ICFMH). They addressed attendees on the value of making decisions on food safety matters based on good evidence and findings, and the role of the ICFMH in maintaining standards around food safety. Ms Isabelle Desforges from Biomerieux in France spoke about the value of microbial standards such as ISO and other microbiological testing methods.
Centre for Food Safety
The speakers were in Stellenbosch for the annual advisory committee meeting of the Centre for Food Safety in the SU Department of Food Science. It was established in November 2018 thanks to support from the South African food industry. It followed on the listeriosis crisis. The Centre is still the only one of its kind in the country. Researchers at SU, colleagues and members of the food industry have since been working together to investigate specific issues regarding food safety, to raise awareness and to provide advice and change policies where possible.
"It is a privilege to have people of their calibre on our advisory committee. It was fitting to have them speak to people from our local food industry. They were also able to share their knowledge with our students during special lectures," notes food microbiologist Prof Pieter Gouws, director of SU Centre for Food Safety.
Prof Gouws says he is grateful for the progress that has been made over the past year through the Centre for Food Safety, and for the good cooperation between partners in academia and food industry.
"We are learning to each other," he emphasised. "That's why our motto is 'innovation through collaboration'."
Studies have already been completed on the prevalence of antimicrobic resistant bacteria among livestock and wildlife in South Africa. A survey was done on the prevalence of Campylobacter and Arcobacter species in ostriches. A One Health approach was followed to investigate Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterium that in 2018 caused an unprecedented listeriosis outbreak in South Africa. Research was done to ascertain to what a degree it is prevalent in food, the environment and clinical isolates in the Western Cape.
An information session on food safety trends were presented to members of the food industry by the Centre for Food Safety at Stellenbosch. The speakers were (from left) Prof Stephen Forsythe, a retired professor in microbiology at Nottingham Trent University, UK), Prof Wilhelm Holtzapfel, president of the International Committee on Food Microbiology and Hygiene (ICFMH), Prof Mieke Uyttendaele of the Department of Food Technology, Safety and Health at the University of Gent and Ms Isabelle Desforges from Biomerieux (France). With them is Prof Pieter Gouws of the SU Department of Food Science, and director of the SU Centre for Food Safety. Photo: Marco Oosthuizen