Globalization of food, an ever-growing sheer volume of food needed worldwide, increased awareness of consumers, unforgiving press and media coverage of contamination incidents – all these are key drivers of the growing food safety testing market and are presenting new challenges to the ages-old food industry.
Conducting market research on the food safety testing market has led me to believe that the landscape is going to change drastically in the years to come. Stake-holders across the industry will all have to adapt and adopt new approaches to keep up with the changes.
With technology becoming so advanced, and hygiene standards being higher than ever, one might have thought that food safety testing should be a relatively straightforward and well-established procedure by now. Or perhaps, with it being so easy for many of us to take the safety of our food for granted, one may not even have given much thought to the topic at all. Yet, over the last few years, the industry has been busier than ever.
As the supply chain is becoming more complex, the industry is being forced to come up with innovative ways of ensuring food safety. The demand from consumers for safe food and stricter regulations being imposed by governments mean that relatively, the standards that food must meet is getting higher.
To illustrate an example, the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) set up by the US FDA has been driving reforms in food safety testing not only within the US but across the globe, especially in countries that are major trade partners of the US. The act shifts the focus of food safety to ensure the handling and processing throughout the supply chain adhere to safe practices, as opposed to merely testing the final product. It is a ‘prevention better than cure’ policy.
Food industry stakeholders have to adapt to the emerging regulatory policies. However, switching to new requirements is a huge challenge for market players and enforcement agencies since it involves handling large volumes of data, paperwork, and a need for the ability to track ingredients along with the supply chain. With so many checkpoints in the supply chain, food fraud and false certifications are becoming a problem because each point presents the opportunity for illegal tampering, while the complexity of the supply chain makes it harder to trace products back to their source of primary production.
Political developments influencing trade between leading economies can directly impact food manufacturers too. They have to adapt to meet changes in regulatory requirements and consumer demands in different regions. One example is the potential impact of the recent US-China trade wars. After China imposed massive sanctions on the import of US soybeans, the US made a trade deal with Europe whereby Europe pledged to take over as the major importer of US soybeans, which are 90% GM. This deal was in spite of the fact that Europe is generally anti-GM and many government authorities remain opposed to GM products. Although the majority of this will be used as animal feed, potential impacts may include an increase in pressure from consumers for food manufacturers to include GMO labeling. The US exporters will also have to comply with European import and labeling regulations.
Another unexpected factor influencing the food safety testing industry is climate change. An increase in temperatures by 1 or 2 degrees in some regions have significantly increased the occurrence of and thus the need for mycotoxin contamination testing.
Newer and faster methods of genetic sequencing and identification are being used to detect pathogenic contaminants. Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) is being used as an untargeted approach for identifying contaminants from their DNA and comparing it to sequence libraries. Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) on the other hand, is being used in outbreak investigations to link pathogenic strains from different contamination cases back to a source. Both techniques are made possible by an exponential speeding up and decrease in cost of sequencing methods, as well as having the computing power and bioinformatics capabilities of processing the data.
Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time of flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS) is another untargeted approach, which rather than using DNA, produces characteristic mass spectrometry patterns of samples that can be compared to a known database. It has been used to identify pathogens and more recently for the authenticity testing of fish species based on their protein patterns. In both cases, identifying power is limited primarily by the extent of the databases available and as such increasing investments on projects to create, expand and streamline databases can help advance these methods.
Scientifically sound, but the real question is whether the costs of initial equipment and need for expertise can decrease enough for these methods to replace PCR – currently the go-to method in the industry for identification.
All the above mentioned advanced technology platforms – NGS, WGS, and MALDI-TOF MS- require bulky equipment. At present, there is also still room for improvement in terms of testing time taken. As such, many start-ups are coming up with alternative innovative technologies that are either smaller or faster. For instance, some companies are targeting RNA instead of DNA to increase the potential for faster and easier detection. Technologies like bioluminescence and magnetic-nanotechnology are being used as quick detection signals and the manipulation of samples. Aptamers are another big excitement – 3D nucleic acid structures with the potential to replace antibodies as more specific and easier to engineer immunodetection methods. Many are also integrating this technology into user-friendly, hand-held devices, and various types have already been developed based on a variety of detection methods, including DNA sequencing, RNA sequencing, and NIR spectroscopy. This would make the technology accessible to smaller food producers and companies in developing countries.
A major area where start-ups are really booming in the industry though is in helping with tracking and data processing.
Blockchain, big data, the industrial internet of things – the buzzwords of today – are entering the food safety industry.
Applying these platforms to the food safety industry is going to help stakeholders keep track food safety data associated with various steps of production, packaging, logistics, retail and more. Software and apps are being used for keeping track of produce along the supply chain and to allow instant access to relevant product information.
One start-up, in particular, is using seaweed-based DNA barcodes that are colorless, odorless and tasteless to apply directly onto foods. Other apps provide guidance to farmers on complying with the ever-complex regulations required, including one app that is specifically tailored to complying with the FSMA.
The implementation of blockchain systems by both start-ups and key industry players is the testimony to the potential benefits of it. Using blockchain to keep track of documentation will help address the issue of fraud certifications as the food industry, like many others today, move towards having greater decentralization and transparency. Cutting out intermediates and using blockchain for information sharing could also make it possible for farmers and producers in developing countries to get near-instantaneous updates on markets, allowing for fairer trade.
Nonetheless, a lot of work still needs to be done to standardize procedures for implementation, as the potential benefit of such a system is only maximized when it is consistently, widely used.