Risk of Contaminated Food Supply Highlighted in UK Risk Register

credit: food-safety.

UK (Parliament Politic Magazine) – The 2023 national risk register for the United Kingdom has evaluated the probability and potential consequences of food supply contamination, yielding valuable insights. In this updated register, the UK government assigned a likelihood rating of four out of five and an impact rating of three out of five to food supply contamination. 

This indicates that the probability of food supply contamination falls within the range of 5 to 25 percent, and its impact would be categorized as “moderate” on a scale spanning from “minor” to “catastrophic.”

Contrasting with the previous 2020 publication of the risk register, which mentioned food-related concerns but did not utilize the same rating framework, this current iteration sheds light on the potential risks more comprehensively.

Supply Chain Considerations

Experts from Pinsent Masons, a legal firm, namely Leo Parkington and Zoe Betts, emphasized that food supply contamination holds both regulatory and reputational ramifications for businesses operating in this domain. Parkington highlighted that the updated risk register serves as a call to action for food producers to gain a deep understanding of their supply chains.

In practical terms, this entails conducting thorough due diligence on suppliers across the entire supply chain. This involves delving into details such as the origins of specific products, the conditions under which processing occurs, and the procedures for storage and transportation. 

Furthermore, it is imperative to incorporate clauses within supplier contracts that mandate compliance with legislation, cooperation in product recalls, audits, and regulatory inquiries. Detailed operational and procedural requisites, including stipulations about refrigeration temperatures during transit and precise labeling instructions for consumers and hospitality establishments, should also be included.

Diverse Contamination Pathways

Contamination risks can manifest during various stages, including production, processing, distribution, and preparation. These risks could stem from cross-contamination, subpar hygiene practices, inadequate storage, or even the presence of animal waste.

In the most dire scenario, the worst-case scenario envisions an incident involving a pathogen infiltrating the food chain, causing illness, hospitalizations, and potentially fatalities among a considerable number of individuals. This scenario assumes that the identity and origin of the contamination would not be immediately identifiable, leading to intricate and time-consuming traceability challenges.

In response to such an event, the necessary action would involve collaboration between entities such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and public health agencies. Additionally, efforts would be geared towards minimizing the risk of substantial erosion of consumer confidence.

Anticipating Potential Outcomes

According to Betts, businesses must gain a comprehensive grasp of the potential outcomes arising from contamination incidents and be well-prepared to take appropriate actions should their products be affected. Companies might be compelled to take immediate measures, regardless of culpability, if their interventions could safeguard consumers.

All food business operators are advised to possess a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that can be swiftly executed in the face of food-related issues. Robust crisis management plans and teams should be tailored to the size and nature of the business, including provisions for cross-border contacts if products have been distributed in international markets. 

These plans should be effectively communicated to relevant staff members and subjected to regular testing and updates, particularly to ensure the ongoing availability of key team members.

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The Risk Register’s Holistic Perspective

The risk register extends beyond food supply contamination, encompassing potential threats to human, animal, and plant health. Additionally, it accounts for risks associated with outbreaks as well as chemical contamination of both food and water supplies.

The UK government’s official risk register has highlighted food supply contamination and outbreaks of animal diseases as some of the most critical threats. This register, recently revised after a three-year gap, presents 89 potential risks capable of substantially affecting the safety, security, or vital systems of the nation.

In the updated list, food supply contamination featuring pathogens like norovirus, salmonella, listeria, or E. coli was ranked at the 40th position. This comes subsequent to an in-depth inquiry by Farmers Weekly that unveiled severe breaches in food safety at a meat processing facility.

The document emphasized that contamination presents a “significant threat to public health.”

Serious risks were also identified, including outbreaks of animal diseases like African swine fever (ASF), foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), and avian influenza that can spread to humans. Additionally, vulnerabilities in power supply and water availability were listed as potential concerns.

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.