Food safety is defined as the scientific methods and processes of preparing, handling and storage of fresh produce to prevent it from contamination as it passes from farm to table. In theory, this may seem simple. However, due to the complexity of food and the natural presence of potential hazards, the assurance of food safety is not a simple matter.
Internationally, food safety has been a topic of much discussion over the last few years, from a local as well as an imported produce distribution standpoint. In fact, in recent times, our attention to safety has gone beyond just the distributing framework to a more micro-focused emphasis on the impact farming practices have on the production of fruits and vegetables. This focus on safety has transcended the chain of command in most countries to trickle down to the end consumer as well. Today, consumers around the world are more informed about healthy food practices and therefore demand to know how and what is being used to produce their agriculturally derived produce.
However, the same can’t be said about India. While our export produce adheres to globally mandated standards, our production for local consumption does not fully comply with these standards. During 2018-2019, FSSAI released data on food safety enforcement efforts by states and Union Territories in India. It analyzed a total of 106,459 samples across the country and found over 15.8% of food samples as sub-standard, 3.7% unsafe, and 9% mislabeled. And for that to change there needs to be a shift in outlook and caution at the very base level of the supply chain. In India, awareness amongst consumers is on the slightly lower end. Our local population needs to equip themselves with the necessary knowledge to make more informed buying decisions. They should begin to rethink and question the quality of food they consume.
- Factors affecting food safety and possible solutions
Let's take a look at the fresh produce network. Our fruits and vegetables go from harvest to production to sorting to storage to distribution and then finally to the end consumers dining table. Even the slightest hint of negligence and unhygienic practices at any stage can leave fresh produce vulnerable to contamination or a reduction in the food’s nutritive value. At an early stage, fruits and vegetables are exposed to chemicals resulting in serious altercations to the quality and safety of the final produce. Additionally, the use of pesticides to control insects, unwanted plants, or fungi can result in trace residues of the pesticide in the food. Thus, it is essential to hold farmers accountable for high residue food, quality issues, and bad agricultural practices. At the same time, educating them on safe pesticide usage, ensure they are up to date with the suggested checklist issued by the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and appreciate them with rewards for the efforts they put. In the process, food producers can gain insights on how they can serve better. In some cases, components of packaging materials migrate from the package to foods, leaving trace residuals in the produce.
Food processing is one of the most important stages in the food chain, and those responsible for performing the duties involved should regulate good agricultural practices and improve the utilization of pesticides that are not harmful to consume. It is also important that the workers take particular care of their hygiene and practice proper food handling behaviour.
On a more macro-level, factors like lack of food safety legislation, lack of motivation in dealing with food safety, and lack of knowledge have significantly contributed to the potential concerns. Hence, it is essential to identify factors affecting safe food handling practices, especially during preparation and consumption.
- Distribution methods and possible solutions
The distribution and supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in India is a complex maze of multi-channel partners. To streamline food safety measures and awareness among these active players is a huge challenge. A robust technology-driven distribution channel will ensure food safety until the last-mile delivery.
It is imperative that channel partners in the food supply chain need to adopt and take a look at the latest tools that help optimize inventory positions through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies. These technological solutions accurately predict the right consumer demand, ensuring that suppliers can gauge supply and demand to manage inventory.
The other important solution that one cannot choose to ignore today is track and trace, which has the ability to track food through the entire food supply chain from farm to fork. Not only does it track the delivery of fresh foods to consumers but also, can trace a product back to its source if there is a food safety-related crisis.
Let's look at some solutions that are available to implement and create a streamlined approach to supply chain management.
- Crop and Soil Monitoring – To monitor crop and soil health, computer vision and deep-learning algorithmic processed data captured by drones and/or software-based technology can be leveraged
- Predictive Analytics – Impact of weather changes on the crop can be tracked and monitored using machine learning models
- Enterprise Resource Planning- ERP helps you to drive smooth and accurate predictable operations with capabilities to handle bulk data, optimizing warehouse operations, greater visibility, and control over all the delivery of fresh produce. Additionally, mobile-ready ERP ensures zero paper in the supply chain
- Frequency Identification- Radio Frequency Identification is a process that enhances accuracy, enables traceability and visibility of produce through its unique identification of objects and real-time location analysis
Additionally, to mitigate potential outbreaks, the worksite management should communicate the safety policies, measures to the workers and provide adequate knowledge of technology.
Food safety ultimately deals with the consumption stage and has more room for improvement. The observance and rigorous control throughout the process of the food chain is a necessity, given that the risk of food safety can surface at any given level of the chain. Poor, uncertain, and unfair market conditions only discourage farmers from producing quality food and investing in technology, or taking risks. As much as food producers are responsible to harvest, globally standard recognized produce is a collective responsibility, from an institution-level to an individual-level to have a substantial influence on the food offered for human consumption.
Subsequently, clear information on food safety, workshops for food handlers, and develop infrastructure will further motivate farmers to undertake precautionary measures while harvesting. Every nation has regulations that are supposed to protect people from unsafe practices in food production, and existing agencies need to be equipped to change.
(The author is the CEO & Co-Founder of Ninjacart)