Does the push to sustainability mean a drop in food hygiene standards? With the odd high-profile exception, climate change is now recognised as a fact and something that is directly attributable to human interaction with the planet and its resources. While it is certainly not going to happen overnight there is very much a ‘we broke this, we need to fix this’ mentality evident from the highest corporate levels down to the street. The end user is certainly become more aware of the supply chain and demanding that it is ethical and sustainable in increasing numbers.
Manufacturing is accordingly becoming increasingly aware of the need for sustainability in the supply and processing of food. Whether this shift in attitude to a more climate friendly approach is a genuine desire for change or a cynical response to customer pressure is a debatable and, in many ways, a moot point. The move to sustainability is happening so the reason why it is happening is probably not top of the agenda in most manufacturing businesses. Implementing processes to support sustainability, and ensuring that implementation results in maintaining standards, is where the focus is likely to be. Practical implementation of the desire for sustainability can be the stumbling block of course. High ideals are easily scuppered by the real world practicalities of production and the financial pressures of maintaining a profitable business.
What Exactly Is Sustainability?
When you consider the elements of a successful sustainability approach in the food industry you are almost immediately presented with a juggling act. The desire to maintain and contribute to communities and to protect the diversity of flora and fauna, both in the UK and overseas, seems opposed to the principles of supplying at a reasonable price. Ensuring that your purchasing really benefits the local provider while maintaining a profitable business model is not an easy task. The lowest price on offer rarely meets sustainability standards. Avoiding waste, educating, reducing environmental impact and educating the supply chain all have a price tag which is unwelcome in an industry which is already price sensitive. In real terms the application of suitable practice is going to be about finding a working mix of practical steps towards creating a sustainable supply chain, which reflect the high ideals behind the desire to make those changes.
Sustainability then is a commitment to:
- Helping maintain the communities that supply our food regardless of location.
- Ensuring that those who work to produce the food we eat are treated fairly.
- Ensuring that the manufacturing and supply logistics have as little environmental impact as possible.
- Contributing to the education and development of people who then continue to develop practical solutions to these ideals.
- Using methods of farming and production that can be maintained without causing harm or long term problems for the local eco systems.
It is going to be a long road to bring these principles into the daily working work of food production because, as we know, the consumer is interested in convenience, price, quality and of course taste (often with a cultural bias) when making a buying decision. The balancing act between the cost of supply and the needs of the consumer has always been a tricky one, sustainability adds an additional pressure to this.
How Does This Have An Impact On Food Hygiene?
In theory, sustainable food should be seen as healthy food in the eyes of many consumers. One of the regular early stages of a sustainable farming process is a commitment to the reduction of chemical and other artificial methods of fertilisation and pest control. Less chemicals should mean less chance of contamination. However, it could also mean increased chance of the food containing natural dangers. The use of natural predators to control pests for example requires a longer period to become effective and is subject to several factors that could reduce its effectiveness where chemical spraying is quick acting, precise and relatively easy and low cost to implement.
There have recently been several outbreaks of food poisoning caused by the consumption of green leafy or sprouting vegetables, including one major incident in the US. These kinds of outbreaks require specific control and any move to a more sustainable manufacturing and production chain must allow for the same level of reporting, assessment and containment as the current chain.
Maintain Good Food Hygiene
Maintaining good levels of food hygiene as we move to a sustainable environment is likely to require an increased level of maintenance and monitoring of standards. The issue with standards is that they can slip very easily either through incompetence or through malicious intent. The relatively recent scandal over the inclusion of horse meat in beef products bound for the shelves of major supermarket chains is testament to how easy it is for a breach of standards to reach the general population. The move to a more environmentally friendly process of production will likely mean a variable level of change in the supply chain. Any change is an opportunity for standards to slip as the new procedures come online. Careful HACCP monitoring and quality testing will be needed to offset any problems.
Imported goods from less developed areas could well be an issue. Sustainability in the rolling fields of Lincolnshire is a very different ballgame to an African plain or a rainforest environment. Apart from the question of reluctance in the farming and supply chain to move to a sustainable model for financial reasons, there is the issue of the environment itself to add to the mix.
In the final analysis though, a sustainable model should not really impact too hard on the manufacturers ability to maintain a high level of hygiene in food preparation, unless the chain does not fully adapt to the changing conditions or, the suppliers and manufacturers do not adhere to the ideals of sustainability with informed practice.
For the sake of our environment though it would seem that adapting to a sustainable food manufacturing model may not be one of many options, it may be the only viable option in a world of shrinking resources and spiralling climate change.