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Checking If It’s Safe – What Does The Consumer Need To Know About Food Safety?

An increasing world population has led to the intensification and industrialization of agriculture and animal production to meet the increasing demand for food, creating both opportunities and challenges for food safety. Environmental issues such as climate change in addition to serious foodborne disease outbreaks are also predicted to impact food safety. Increasing environmental temperatures provide food safety risks associated with food production, storage and distribution. Unsafe food poses global health threats endangering everyone, therefore food producers and handlers have an increased responsibility to ensure safe food to all consumers.

Consumer habits are changing because of different lifestyles, travel, global exposure and urbanization. Increased constraints on resources such as time and available income have led to a greater number of people buying and eating food prepared in public places. Global food is becoming a reality, as consumers demand a wider variety of foods leading to a more complex and longer global food chain. Consumers are wanting food that has a fresh taste, that is minimally packaged and processed. At the same time, the consumer has a limited commitment to food preparation in the home and also lacks knowledge of basic food safety principles.

Food can become contaminated at any point of production and distribution, and the primary responsibility lies with food producers. Yet a large proportion of foodborne disease incidents are caused by foods improperly prepared or mishandled at home, in food service establishments or markets. Not all food handlers and consumers understand the roles they must play, such as adopting basic hygienic practices when buying, selling and preparing food to protect their health and that of the wider community. Consumers rarely consider their own food safety practices a hazard. They tend to be more focussed on convenience and saving time versus proper food handling and preparation.

Consumers have become more ‘food educated’ in the last few years and are caring more about the food they eat, where it comes from and what is in it, this includes their concern about the safety of the product. They care about their health and want their food to contain ingredients that are safe, healthy and harmless. Food laws and standards for safety need to be adhered to as globalization takes place in the food industry making a wide variety of food products available in local markets. Social media and technology has made information regarding food scares and the safety of food more accessible and widespread. Information such as this can contribute to distrust towards the food producer and handler and regaining such trust can be difficult, therefore educating the consumer is of extreme importance.

This can be done in various ways by:

  • providing consumer education in an accessible and user-friendly manner;
  • using clear, honest and transparent labelling;
  • sharing food safety information that is clear and understandable; and
  • using recognisable ingredients.

Food safety education is a shared responsibility between parents, schools, food industry groups, government, academic institutions and food safety training agencies. User-friendly food safety training and information can be delivered in public spaces and on public platforms such as:

  • in stores at the check-out counters;
  • public announcements in stores;
  • on special food safety apps that have been developed to make food safety a game that is played and levels of achievement attained as part of the training process;
  • infographics that present compound information in a small selective space;
  • word clouds that provide a consumer with the most important concepts regarding food safety such as clean, separate, cook and chill;
  • printing on the packaging that shares food safety instructions;
  • food safety information on the shopping bags that the consumer takes home.

Everyone can contribute to making food safe, the responsibility does not lie solely with the food producer or handler and the consumer plays an important role in ensuring safe food practices. However, the consumer tends to place the responsibility and risk of food safety on the shoulders of the food industry and government. Consumers can contribute to food safety in various ways if they know the right answers and ask the pertinent questions.

Here are some examples of what consumers need to know regarding food safety:

  • Know the food they use by reading the labels on food packaging with specific reference to consumption time, storage and shelf life.
  • Make informed choices of selecting food items that will still be safe to eat even if there is a time lapse between production and consumption.
  • Ask questions and become knowledgeable regarding common food hazards
  • Know what the keys to safer food [clean; separate; cook; chill] at home and in the food service industry are such as the correct handling, preparation and storage of various food products.
  • Know how to decrease and control microbiological contamination when handling food.

To make a dramatic improvement in reducing the burden of foodborne disease we need to get much better at influencing and changing human behaviour according to leaders in the food safety industry. The food service industry should also ensure that they have a customer focus where all employees should keep in mind that it is imperative that the customer receives safe food. Ensuring consumer trust in the authorities and confidence in food supply supported by knowledgeable consumers will go a long way in building an environment where food safety is not compromised.

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