Stringent Measures Needed to Eliminate Food Contaminants

Massive population growth has necessitated huge efforts on the part of industry to meet the nutritional needs of people throughout the world. While the spectres of famine and drought continue to haunt many countries, the more-developed regions have responded by resorting to intensive farming methods that involve the use of toxic pesticides and artificial fertilisers, while converting much of that natural produce into highly processed commercial products. Unfortunately, both the production and the processing methods now in use have greatly increased the risk that the food we eat could contain contaminants.

Soil particles, pieces of shell or stalks, and even tiny fragments of glass or metal may find their way into a product unless care is taken at every stage during its production. However, careful inspection and washing of raw ingredients, filtration of liquids, and general vigilance are normally sufficient to prevent contamination with physical materials. In practice, it tends to be biological and chemical agents that present more serious problems for the food and beverage industry. Furthermore, it has become clear, in recent years, that not all nations are equally stringent in the measures they apply to eliminate the risk of contaminants in their processed food products.

While South Africa imposes strict regulations on the country’s producers, slip-ups can occur as the outbreak of listeriosis that claimed more than 180 lives during 2017 and 2018 clearly underlines. This was an example of a foodborne disease in which the causative organism, Listeria monocytogenes, originated in the soil but, somehow, found its way into polony, a ready-to-eat product that requires no further cooking. Even refrigeration offers no protection against listeriosis, as the organism is still able to reproduce at low temperatures. For Listeria, Salmonella species, E. coli, Campylobacter and other common biological food contaminants there are specific screening tests with the ability to detect even trace quantities of these dangerous pathogens.

Chemical threats can arise from sources such as pesticide residues and drugs used to treat livestock but may also come from cleaning chemicals used in preparation areas while they can even occur as a by-product of processing or from contact with packaging materials. Biological threats can be present in raw ingredients, be due to poorly cleaned equipment of preparation surfaces, and even carried by an infected staff member. While stringent hygiene procedures are invariably exercised by the industry, the effectiveness of those procedures must also be monitored by testing both raw ingredients and finished products for the presence of all likely food contaminants.

At one time, the need to conduct these screening procedures would have meant long delays in releasing products to market. It could take as much as a day to learn the results of complex and time-consuming analytical procedures performed on samples taken from each batch of product. Fortunately, new technologies have since made it possible to reduce test times to a matter of hours and even minutes. Moreover, many of the new test procedures are more specific, more sensitive, and more accurate than their lengthy, traditional counterparts.

Quality reagents and equipment are obviously crucial and this probably explains why so many of South Africa’s producers prefer to source their test kits for food contaminants from IEPSA.

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