The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has published a summary of the findings of a recent foresight technical meeting on new food sources and production systems, which took place November 13–17, 2023 in Rome, Italy. The objective of the meeting was to evaluate the food safety issues associated with plant-based food products, new applications of precision fermentation, and 3D food printing, as well as to illustrate, through a foresight exercise, the possible future landscape of new foods and production systems.

As explained by experts from FAO’s Food Systems and Food Safety Division in an article written for Food Safety Magazine’s December 2022/January 2023 issue, “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.”

New food sources and production systems (NFPS) can play a critical role in the transformation of global agrifood systems by diversifying current methods of producing food; therefore, FAO applies foresight approaches to agrifood systems and food safety to prepare for potential emerging threats, disruptions, and challenges, while also being ready to optimize opportunities that may arise in the medium- to long-term future.

The recent technical meeting focused on plant-based foods, precision fermentation, and 3D food printing. FAO discussed other novel foods, specifically edible seaweed and insects, in previous meetings.  

Overall, FAO concluded that the food safety hazards associated plant-based foods, precision fermentation, and 3D food printing are similar to those of conventional foods. However, new production and processing technologies may introduce conditions that are unique to a particular NFPS and may require close attention from a food safety perspective, and when conducting safety assessments on new food sources, the intended uses of final products should be a key consideration. Additionally, while provisions contained in Codex Alimentarius standards are applicable to new food sources and new production systems, there may be some unique food safety aspects and impacts of NFPS which may need further risk analysis and could lead to revision of existing standards and/or the drafting of new ones.

The foresight exercise conducted at the meeting highlighted the importance of applying forward-thinking approaches to stay abreast of food safety concerns within the NFPS sector. Such foresight approaches promote strategic preparedness among the food safety community to not only proactively address challenges but also to optimize opportunities that such emerging areas may bring.  

Plant-Based Food Products

Food safety implications for plant-based food products depend on how the plants are grown, harvested, stored, transported, and processed to obtain the functional ingredients.

Although novel plant-based food ingredients can provide sustainability benefits, new hazards may be introduced if food products are based on plants not traditionally used for food purposes, especially if the plant is a primary component, and increased exposure of consumers to known hazards may also occur. An important concern is the potential for increased consumer exposure to chemical contaminants like toxins, agrochemicals, and heavy metals due to the nature of plant production. Allergenicity resulting from the consumption of new proteins or increased consumption of proteins from plant-based sources may also require specific assessment.

Moreover, consumers may perceive plant-based food products as microbiologically safer than their conventional animal-derived counterparts, and so may not appropriately handle the products to the same extent, including cooking and storage. This may lead to additional food safety risks, which could be mitigated by proper labeling and consumer education.   

Data gaps and research needs regarding the food safety of plant-based products include:

  • Microbiological research specific to plant-based food products, such as on the types and sources of spores and the potential for pathogenic bacteria survival and growth, dependent upon packaging conditions and holding temperatures throughout the distribution chain
  • Allergenicity research, including food safety risks from increasing exposure to plant-based proteins and the potential for food allergies when plants not traditionally used for food purposes are utilized in plant-based food products
  • The presence of masked and emerging mycotoxins in plant-based foods
  • Environmental contaminants, like per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), residues of pharmaceutical or veterinary drugs, heavy metals, and/or micro- and nanoplastics in plant-based food products
  • The toxicology of plant secondary metabolites (e.g., of plants not traditionally used for food purposes).

Precision Fermentation

Precision fermentation is not a new technology and has been used to produce various food ingredients for decades; however, the field is rapidly evolving, and novel technologies and applications may introduce food safety challenges that require ongoing risk assessment from the food safety community.  

Safety considerations around new applications of precision fermentation include allergenic risks of proteins that either mimic existing allergens, are altered in a way that may be allergenic, or may not previously have been identified as allergens. Appropriate safety assessments, labeling, and consumer messaging will continue to be important tools in addressing allergen risks. Additionally, the variability in purification steps and varying target purity of final products may introduce food safety challenges.

Moving from laboratory to industrial-scale production may introduce challenges that are relevant to food safety, particularly when sourcing alternative raw materials for feedstock, ensuring strain stability, and developing scale-appropriate hazard control measures. Effective monitoring of precision fermentation manufacturing in line with established safety management guidelines is an important step in preventing contamination during manufacturing.  

Data gaps and research needs regarding novel precision fermentation applications include the lack of detection techniques for real-time, cost-effective monitoring of specific contaminants during precision fermentation. Additional research on allergenicity to inform safety assessment could also be valuable in evaluating products produced through precision fermentation.

3D Food Printing

Although 3D food printing is a new food production method, most of the potential hazards associated with it are common to other food production processes and can be addressed by existing food safety risk assessments and following appropriate hygiene protocols. However, the technology may enable other food innovations, which may have unique food safety implications.

As with other food processing equipment, hygienic design principles should be used in the development process of the machine and associated consumables. Consumer education around hygienic use of at-home 3D food printers is also important to minimize potential food safety risks.

Data gaps and research needs regarding 3D-printed foods include the impact that some new post-printing methods, such as laser cooking, which are applied to provide structure stability to the products, may have on food safety. Additionally, a gap exists in the understanding of how consumers are likely to interact with 3D food printing devices intended for home use, related consumables, and their products, and how they will maintain required hygienic practices.