In the food industry, consumer perception is everything, and nowhere is that more important than the safety of the foods they buy. According to the International Food Information Council’s 2014 Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey, 67% of survey participants have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, which is a consistently high figure held since 2008. However, 14% of participants said they were not confident in the food supply, which is the highest since 2008 by a slim margin.
As for specific concerns about the food supply, disease/contamination and food handling/preparation received 18% each of the votes for the highest food safety concerns. Thus, many food safety technologies being developed are dedicated to taking care of those particular issues.
With the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), highly visible recalls like Blue Bell and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and growing concerns about listeria, salmonella, and E. coli, food safety technology is arguably more important than ever. The food safety tech industry is growing rapidly and discovering new ways to keep food safer at every part of the supply chain.
Effects of the FSMA
The FSMA, the most intensive reform of food safety legislation in 70 years, will undoubtedly have vast implications for the growth of food safety technology. As part of the FSMA, new reporting requirements mandate more detailed monitoring and record-keeping for food producers, and implementing new technologies is a common—if not necessary—strategy to meet compliance.
One strategy is to employ the Internet of Things, which uses a combination of sensors, the Internet, and a network of devices, both mobile and desktop, to collect, organize, and even analyze data at all stages of the supply chain. Sensors can perform a wide range of functions, such as tracking production conditions, shipping time, temperature, and a host of other metrics relevant to the quality and safety of the food supply.
In addition to tracking technology, FSMA might inspire other innovative technologies that overhaul the overall processes of handling food.
"When I think about tech, I not only think about it as far as when you apply it to something or to keep it safe, but what kind of systems do you use that are reproducible so we don’t get a lot of variation?" said John Meccia, CEO of CMS Technology, a food safety technology developer.
In many cases, modern technology can help maintain consistency and speed better than an analog, human-dependent system might, which could effectively overhaul a previous system for the better. High-tech systems in place to achieve FSMA compliance could include new factory line equipment and procedures for food processing or new equipment and procedures for produce picking and sorting. Making farms, factories, storage, distribution centers, and retail outlets safer in terms of their everyday operations will better the chances of the food being handled in a safer way, per the requirements of the FSMA.
Technologies to watch out for
Researchers and tech companies are developing new food safety technologies constantly. Here are a few to look out for:
ProduceShield, from John Meccia’s CMS Technology, is a specially chemically-formulated produce wash that promotes the safety of foods while reducing spoilage and increasing shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Easy to rinse off and leaving no residue, the wash offers an extra layer of protection not only against general bacteria but against pathogens as well. Meccia said that results from the past several months have shown a 92% improvement in bacterial reduction.
Dr. Carmen Gomes, researcher with Texas A&M’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, created a biosensor chip that will be able to detect even low listeria levels in food samples in minutes. This means much faster detection than the current standard tests, which take several days to return results. It could also lead to faster and potentially smaller recalls if the contamination is discovered and dealt with early enough.
Eurofin Scientific devised chip technology that determines 21 types of animal species in food using DNA targets. This type of technology could prevent fiascos like horsemeat used in beef and can help food manufacturers ensure labeling compliance while avoiding contamination of unwanted species.
DNATrek has created DNA “barcodes” that can be applied to produce via a spray or wax without affecting odor, taste, or compromising food safety. The barcodes enable farmers to essentially tag their foods. This way, companies and regulators can identify and trace back products that cause disease outbreaks and recalls, which enables them to handle any issues more quickly.
While its types and implementations are endless, all food safety technology aims to improve the confidence manufacturers have in the foods they produce so their customers, the consumers, can ultimately have more confidence in the foods they buy.
"Today, [technology’s] role is huge," said Meccia. "I think technology, when used properly, can be extremely effective and extremely safe, and it could satisfy a broad range of consumer desires and requirements."