As the global population rises, our agri-food systems are under significant pressure to provide nutritious and safe food while staying within our planetary limits. This is compounded by the fact that the world around us is fundamentally changing, with socioeconomic and environmental factors—e.g., changing demographics and migrations, adaptation to climate change, income inequalities, altering consumer behavior and food preferences, automation and digitalization, and emerging infectious diseases, among others—are increasingly disrupting the status quo of our current agri-food systems.
With less than a decade left to achieve the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals,1 there is growing acceptance of the need for agri-food systems to be transformed to become more resilient, sustainable, and equitable in the face of these rising challenges. How these agri-food system transformations take shape over time will have tremendous implications for the food safety landscape, which is itself evolving in tandem with the changing global context. For food safety actors and processes to operate effectively under such changing conditions, it is vital to anticipate disruptions and adapt accordingly. This is possible by developing and maintaining a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities as they emerge, to adequately meet the varying needs of a changing system.
Foresight is an approach that comprises forward-looking methodologies that allow taking structured, medium to long-term views of the future to appropriately guide present-day decision-making. Foresight does not predict the future, however. The fundamental thought process behind foresight is acknowledging that the roots of multiple plausible future scenarios exist today in the form of early signs. Monitoring these signs to generate a systematic gathering of intelligence, followed by careful analyses of this intelligence, allows us to better prepare for the opportunities and challenges presented by emerging global drivers and trends. These aspects set foresight apart from early warning systems in food safety, as the latter mainly focuses on the prevention of and rapid response to outbreaks. By providing avenues to explore how the future may unfold, foresight enables strategic preparedness in global food safety to address vulnerabilities and ensure resilience.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) food safety foresight program2 is geared toward the proactive identification and evaluation of emerging drivers and trends that arise both from within and outside agri-food systems, and can have food safety implications. The recent FAO publication, "Thinking about the future of food safety—A foresight report,"3 captures some key drivers and trends as identified through the foresight program. The publication also provides a snapshot of the FAO food safety foresight methodology, which is a three-step process (Figure 1) rooted in a horizon scanning approach:
- The first step is the identification of relevant drivers and trends from across agri-food systems or external to the systems that can have food safety impacts. This is done through regular monitoring of various sources such as scientific articles, media reports, documents by various relevant organizations, etc. To prevent biases in what information is gathered for analysis, a diversity of sources is key. Therefore, efforts are made to cultivate information exchange with partners, both in-house and external to FAO, from a wide breadth of expertise and locations.
- The second step is the broad distillation and analyses of the collected information based on various set criteria, such as food safety implications, the likelihood and time, scale, etc. The filtered information is then further analyzed to pinpoint areas of interest that need to be monitored for the future work of FAO food safety.
- The third step is effectively communicating the results from the food safety foresight process to a broad audience. Proper distribution of foresight results will not only benefit the food safety arena, but also have knock-on effects on other areas that overlap, such as food security, sustainability, nutrition, and so on, creating a knowledge distribution and impact network that is trans-disciplinary.
FIGURE 1. Horizon Scanning-Based Process Explored in the FAO Foresight Publication (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2022, "Thinking about the future of food safety—A foresight report," https://www.fao.org/3/cb8667en/cb8667en.pdf)
Some of the trends and drivers covered by the foresight publication are discussed in brief below.
New Food Sources and Food Production Systems
Growing awareness of the depletion of natural resources and adverse environmental impacts from conventional food production processes is propelling diversification of diets through exploration of new sources of food and different ways of producing food (Figure 2).4
FIGURE 2. Overview of Relationship between Drivers and Trends and their Related Opportunities and Challenges as Used in the FAO Foresight Publication, with New Food Sources as an Example (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2022, "Thinking about the future of food safety—A foresight report," https://www.fao.org/3/cb8667en/cb8667en.pdf)
In the face of some of the food security and sustainability challenges ahead, these new foods can offer tremendous opportunities. Moreover, it is a sector earmarked for growth in the coming decades and is also receiving attention at the level of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. However, as countries around the world reflect on the latest developments and how to integrate new foods into their existing food systems, it is important to objectively evaluate the safety of new foods, as these will have implications not only for public health but also for developing regulatory frameworks, establishing hygiene and manufacturing practices, and maintaining trade.
The new foods covered in the foresight report are edible insects, seaweeds, jellyfish, and plant-based alternatives. A cell-based food production system is also discussed. Like all foods, these new foods also require food safety considerations, with some issues that are quite unique to them. For example, the allergenic potential of insects,5 the ability of seaweeds to accumulate heavy metals (like arsenic and cadmium) from their surroundings,6 or processing methods with alum that increase the level of aluminum in jellyfish. In plant-based alternatives, chemical hazards like mycotoxins present in raw ingredients (e.g., cereals, soy, nuts) can find their way into the finished products, like plant-based beverages. Sources of cell lines, growth media components, and potential for microbiological contamination are some of the major food safety considerations in cell-based food production. In addition, ambiguity in the nomenclature of new food products can cause labeling and regulatory challenges, such as for plant-based alternatives or cell-based foods.
Scientific evidence on the causes and impacts of climate change on agri-food systems continues to grow and attract global attention. At present, with global temperatures 1.2 °C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures, extreme events are becoming more frequent, severe, and unpredictable. It is clear from current global events that our food supply chains remain vulnerable to climate change impacts with heat waves, droughts, ocean acidification, hurricanes, intense rain, and floods, resulting in unparalleled losses to public health, economies, and ecosystems.7
Climate change presents a multi-faceted threat to food safety by altering the distribution and severity of foodborne hazards.8 Globalization and lengthening supply chains increase the chances of amplification of foodborne risks along the way—such as local foodborne illnesses becoming outbreaks at the international level. Changes in temperature, precipitation, and other environmental factors are affecting the geographic distribution and persistence of foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp., for which evidence is well documented. Frequent hurricanes and flooding of agricultural fields facilitate the distribution of pathogens in the food chain and increase the likelihood of waterborne disease outbreaks. Droughts, on the other hand, can restrict how water is used for sanitation purposes and may affect food businesses if proper management practices are not put in place.
Among major chemical contaminants, climate change is facilitating the expansion of the geographic niche of mycotoxigenic fungi and toxin-producing algal species to other areas than those in which they have been traditionally observed. These new areas can often be unprepared for the food safety management challenges that are associated with these contaminants and, consequently, the public health and economic repercussions. Evidence for increased exposure to other chemical contaminants, like heavy metals, under climate change conditions is also growing. The conversion of mercury to methylmercury and its bioaccumulation in aquatic systems under ocean warming and acidification conditions have been observed. In addition, the increased uptake of arsenic in staple crops like rice is well-documented under conditions of both rising soil and air temperatures. Both scientific articles and real-world examples exist of how climate change has a role in the migration of pests to areas beyond their traditional geographic spaces/habitats, as well as providing environmental factors conducive to an increase in population—for instance, the recent crisis due to massive locust swarms in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Conditions like these can potentially prompt a higher and sometimes improper use of pesticides.
With about two-thirds of the global population expected to reside in cities by 2050, urban food systems are placed in a unique position to help shape this shifting landscape. Urban farming operations come in various forms and tend to vary by scale—from small-scale, family-owned, backyard farms to community gardens and large, indoor, multi-tiered, vertical farms owned by private companies. In addition to creating employment opportunities, the role of urban agriculture in providing access to sustainable, nourishing, and safe food for the growing urban population will continue to grow. Moreover, shortening the distance between farms and families (or food miles) can also promote affordable food prices, reduce food loss, and improve access to fresh food, encouraging healthier diets.
With respect to urban agriculture, some food safety aspects require due consideration. Some of the benefits of indoor urban farms include the elimination of food safety risks associated with exposure to wildlife (e.g., deer, birds, feral pigs) that can happen to open-air farms, reduced unpredictability associated with the changing climate, and perhaps even minimized frequency of unhygienic human handling. The soils used in urban agriculture and the location of urban farms are important considerations from a food safety perspective, as multiple contaminants can be found in urban soils at varying levels. Certain sites are not suitable for food production, such as areas near gas stations, dry cleaners, landfills, and industrial buildings, to name a few, due to the presence of contaminants such as asbestos, petroleum products, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. While open-air urban farms can also be susceptible to contaminants from air pollution if located too close to high-traffic areas, how ambient air quality affects the safety of urban food products is a topic that requires further research.
Overuse of fertilizers may pollute surface waters and storm run-offs with nitrogen and phosphorus, increasing the chances of eutrophication in nearby water bodies that supply freshwater into cities. Moist, warm environments in indoor farms can encourage the growth of pathogens often linked to foodborne illnesses, which can be a major food safety risk, especially when it comes to food that is consumed raw, such as leafy greens. Water quality is an important consideration for all agricultural purposes. In indoor farming setups like hydroponic and aquaponic systems, where water can be recycled and reused, it is critically important to ascertain and manage all food safety risks to prevent the introduction of hazards within closed-loop environments. Wastewater treatment followed by discharge or reuse is also a consideration for emerging innovative food production techniques such as vertical fish farming, where fish are reared in multi-level, sometimes closed-loop systems.
Circular Economy and Plastics Recycling
The concept of circular economy has been gaining traction globally as a means for overcoming the linear way of utilizing resources, while also addressing concerns about environmental sustainability. While this notion holds promise for agri-food systems in general, various unique food safety issues must also be considered before it is applied to the different sectors within agri-food systems. With the use of plastics in agri-food systems projected to increase several-fold by 2050, the foresight report discusses the food safety implications of implementing a circular economy approach for plastics used as packaging in the food sector.
Another report by FAO shows that agricultural production (mulch and silage films, bags, driplines, plant protectors, etc.) used 12.5 million metric tons of plastic, of which the crop production and livestock sectors together contributed 10 million metric tons, followed by fisheries and aquaculture with 2.1 million metric tons, and forestry with 0.2 million metric tons.9 An additional 37.3 million metric tons were used in food packaging, which generally tend to be engineered for function and used only once, usually with no appropriate end-of-life management processes in place. With recycling rates for plastics still below 10 percent in most countries, plastic waste pollution is a major global challenge, also from a food safety perspective.
Reduce-reuse-recycle-redesign are key under a circular economy approach. While these steps can seem feasible in theory, several food safety issues must be considered when it comes to recycling and reuse of plastic food packaging as contaminants, once introduced into circular economy or closed-loop systems, may become amplified, creating human health issues. A potential food safety risk arises from food contact materials as they may not be inert and can contain harmful chemicals that can migrate into food products. Environmental and health issues related to the occurrence and distribution of micro- and nanoplastics also remain a major concern.10 Other food safety concerns include post-consumer collection and sorting of packages of mixed materials, the extent of contamination originating from the initial use of packages, economic viability of the recycling process, and constraints from the lack of appropriate legislative frameworks.
Alternatives to plastics, such as those with bio-based components, are gaining attention as being potentially environmentally friendly as compared to plastics derived from fossil fuel-based stocks. These bio-based plastics can also have food contact applications and may present food safety challenges of their own—e.g., the risk of allergenic proteins found in food packaging made from protein-based biomaterials. In addition, adverse health impacts of several commonly used nanoparticles, added to packaging to confer certain desired properties, are still under investigation.
Microbiomes in agri-food systems and along the food chain—from soils and plants to animals and humans—are not isolated and can interact with each other. The human gut microbiome is at the end of the food chain and, therefore, is exposed to microorganisms and chemical compounds present in our diet. The latest trends highlight microbiomes as the target of a variety of dietary interventions with the goal of influencing the host's health and well-being. However, it is important to note that microbiomes can also modify our susceptibility to foodborne hazards by transforming compounds and affecting their bioavailability and are, therefore, increasingly being considered for food safety risk assessments.
The human gut microbiome is exposed to chemical compounds that include products intentionally introduced into food (such as food additives), present as a result of upstream activities (such as residues of antimicrobials and pesticides), or any other environmental contaminants present inadvertently. However, research on the impacts of chemical hazards on the perturbation of the gut microbiome and, consequently, human health is limited. Proliferation of foodborne pathogens can alter the structure and function of the gut microbiome. In fact, the resistance offered by the gut microbiota to the colonization of such pathogens is one of the endpoints used to determine the microbiological Acceptable Daily Intake (mADI) in the assessment of veterinary drug residues. Another major area of focus with regard to the gut microbiome is the transmission of antimicrobial resistance. The high microbial density and the constant exposure to new bacteria coming in from our diets makes the gut microbiota susceptible to the transfer of genetic material, especially in the large intestine.
To link dysbiosis with human health phenotypes, it is critical to establish causal links between changes in the composition of the gut microbiome and physio-pathological alterations in the host. This will require identification and validation of microbiome-based biomarkers and endpoints. Moreover, as analytical techniques and methodologies evolve, they will need standardization and best practice guidelines to ensure that results are comparable, consistent, and reproducible.
Technological Innovations and Scientific Advances
Technological innovations are transforming agri-food systems. They are also revolutionizing the food safety arena by bringing in new and improved tools for food production, packaging, automation and digitalization, traceability, and better detection of contaminants and foodborne illness outbreaks.
Advances in packaging are intended to not only fulfil the traditional roles of food packaging (preserving food quality, ease of transport, communication of nutritional information, etc.) but also to extend the shelf life of food products. Components (oxygen and ethylene scavengers, moisture regulators, controlled release antimicrobials, etc.) that are included within packaging are released in response to changes in ambient environment, both within and outside the package. This arrests the spoilage of food products—a hallmark of active packaging. Intelligent packaging includes materials that can monitor the condition of packaged foods and alert manufacturers, retailers, or consumers when the product inside has been compromised or contaminated—for example, by alerting via a change in color. The use of nanotechnology within the food packaging space is also garnering substantial attention, as this technology can be used to improve mechanical strength and provide better barrier properties for packaging materials, as well as aid in nano-sensing as part of active and intelligent packaging.
Three-dimensional (3D) printing or additive manufacturing of food is being explored to diversify and personalize food products by allowing the mixing of several different ingredients. In the new foods arena, this technology can be used to provide meat-like textures with plant-based ingredients and advance cell-based meat production by creating meat-like structures via 3D bioprinting, using animal cells. Four-dimensional (4D) printing is currently on the horizon, and this will entail changes in the properties of food (color, shape, flavor) in response to stimuli such as pH, heat, moisture, etc. Some of the major food safety aspects of 3D printing of food include migration of chemicals from the printer to the food, the ability to thoroughly clean the equipment to prevent microbial growth, shelf-life of 3D printed food products, and potential allergenic risks arising from the use of a diverse set of food-based "ink" materials.
The use of Blockchain—one of the more familiar uses of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)—within the food sector provides a way to securely record every step of a food product's journey through a supply chain. By making it easy to trace from origin to endpoint, it can reduce the response time of food safety actors between the discovery of contaminated or adulterated food products and their removal, averting public health incidents. Drawbacks of such technologies include the inability of DLT itself to judge the quality of data recorded, ambiguity with the governance of decentralized digital domains, and issues around data rights and privacy.
The Internet of Things (IoT) operates through various sensors (for temperatures, pH, humidity, etc.) that are embedded into a vast network of devices that monitors the entire supply chain and sends real-time data to relevant food chain actors. Such advances in technology generate a large volume of variable data, also known as big data, which must be collected and processed appropriately to further distill actionable information. This is where machine learning abilities through Artificial Intelligence (AI) come into play. By detecting and even predicting patterns in large data sets, AI can enhance food safety risk management by food chain actors. Automation through robotics technology, in combination with AI-powered IoT (AIoT), can be used to improve food safety—e.g., by handling repetitive tasks in food processing that can pose health hazards for human employees.
Food safety is the result of functioning food control systems, which are built on the concept of trustworthiness of agri-food system actors. A common notion exists that all actors within food chains function according to a set of agreed-upon rules, practices, and shared responsibility for the common good. By employing intentionally deceptive methods for individual gain, food fraud violates that mechanism of trust that underlies the foundation of relationships between the agri-food sector and consumers.
Adulteration of food can be traced back to ancient times. Today, increasing media reports about food fraud incidents continue to highlight the contemporary seriousness of the issue. These reports are usually followed by urgent calls to stop criminal elements. Food fraud can be difficult to predict and measure, and combatting it can often be likened to never-ending games of whack-a-mole. However, there is still ample room to reconsider how expectations are generated about the actual realities of food fraud, what might be the effective ways of minimizing the risk of food fraud, and how to implement them. A good combination to maintain a judicious level of preparedness to tackle the issue includes advancements in analytical techniques and traceability, improved understanding of food safety hazards, and development of appropriate regulatory strategies that rely on food safety and quality frameworks, consumer protection legislation, contract law, criminal law frameworks, and public-private collaboration.
As global drivers and trends emerge, they bring both opportunities and challenges to the food safety landscape that must keep pace with the changing global contexts under which agri-food systems currently operate. Foresight provides an avenue to explore these emerging opportunities and challenges in their totality, including all variables influencing them. It is hoped that doing so will allow food safety authorities to develop a multidimensional view of the changing dynamics within and for food safety, while fostering preparedness for managing challenges and optimizing opportunities. Utilizing foresight also allows viewing the emerging drivers and trends, such as climate change and microbiomes, from a One Health perspective, which is necessary considering the interconnectedness and multidimensionality of food safety. Foresight can also illuminate knowledge gaps—for example, the need for rigorous lifecycle assessment studies to adequately weigh the environmental sustainability aspects of new foods and circular economy approaches. Both commercial insect production and indoor vertical farming can be energy-intensive, currently making them dependent on fossil fuels.
With sufficient, nutritious, affordable, and safe food considered the key components of food security, climate change impacts on food safety will severely hamper efforts to achieve food security in the face of a rising global population and increased demand for food. While the effects of climate change on food security are better understood and documented, the impacts on food safety need further attention at the global level, as these relationships are not always easy to see. As unsafe food is unfit for consumption, inadequate attention to climate impacts on food safety puts food security in jeopardy.
While new foods are gaining global attention, advancements within this fast-growing sector need to be monitored to assess the related food safety implications. This will, in turn, promote the establishment of appropriate hygiene and manufacturing practices and the development of relevant regulatory frameworks—steps needed to realize the full potential of this sector.
In urban agriculture, additional study is needed on the identification and quantification of chemical residues in food products arising at different production stages, from the overuse of agrochemicals to exposure to air pollutants. Treatment and safe reuse of water, as well as impacts on food grown under fluorescent lamps to mercury vapors in vertical farming, are some areas that need to be scrutinized from a food safety perspective.
With respect to implementing a circular economy in plastics recycling, there is a lack of crucial data on human exposure to migration chemicals and a need for the harmonization of methods used to assess the fates of such chemicals from packaging. Moreover, the release, migration, and measurement of nanoparticles from food contact materials, as well as the fate of nanoparticles in the human body, are still not well understood, which complicates the assessment of nanomaterial safety and continues to be an area of active research.
Microbiomes offer potential as indicators for food safety and food quality while bringing new opportunities to improve current monitoring, preventive, and mitigation activities. Although most research has targeted the bacterial component of the microbiome, additional efforts are needed to study non-bacterial members such as viruses, fungi, archaea, and protozoa. Further research is also necessary to elucidate the substantial amount of data generated by omics technologies. These data include identification of new microbiome members and characterization of genes, metabolic pathways, proteins, and metabolites.
Emerging technologies, by definition, come with both opportunities and challenges, and it is important to have a balanced view of both the benefits and trade-offs. In terms of challenges, basic infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, enforcement procedures, and better data protection and governance need to be put in place. Moreover, active steps are needed to bring technological innovations to areas that need them but are separated by the digital divide. Furthermore, science and its evolution underpin food safety. Therefore, food safety must keep pace with scientific advances, as new knowledge and data continue to inform decisions on whether and how to revise chemical risk assessment processes and, in turn, inform the establishment of food standards and regulatory frameworks.
The fact that there may never be an agri-food system without attempts at food fraud is a thought-provoking one. However, it is possible to reorient the discussion around food fraud from focusing simply on the sheer increase in food fraud cases and resulting panic to instead maintaining a path toward building resilient agri-food systems that strengthen the trust between agri-food system actors and consumers.
© FAO, 2022
Keya Mukherjee, Ph.D. and Vittorio Fattori, Ph.D.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
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Keya Mukherjee, Ph.D., is a Food Safety Specialist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), within the Food Systems and Food Safety Division.
Vittorio Fattori, Ph.D., is a Food Safety Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), within the Food Systems and Food Safety Division.