Meet Kiran Bhardwaj, MSc student, as she discusses her role in the international Food Safety Coalition and why researching aflatoxins is an important aspect of food integrity
Food safety has always been a passion of mine. Growing up in the digital age you have access to a lot more information about the challenges people are facing across the world; and a major challenge, if not the top challenge people are facing, is reliable access to safe and nutritious food. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ensuring access to safe food is a fundamental building block for developing nations; once they have a robust food supply chain, this then supports the national economies, strengthens trade and tourism, which in turn stimulates sustainable development.
It is this domino effect that drew me to food safety research in the first instance; the idea that one small improvement at the source can amplify through the whole chain, whether this be mitigating microbial risks, ensuring food integrity, or reducing the growth of mycotoxigenic fungi.
A focus on Mycotoxins
For those that haven’t heard of them, mycotoxins are a poisonous chemical produced by mold that contaminates 25% of the world crop area and impacts millions of people.
I first learned of them during my Food Technology course at the Amity University in Uttar Pradesh, India and it was during my dissertation that the true scale of the issue hit home for me. I found it surprising how little the impact of mycotoxins is discussed in everyday life. They are so abundant, 25% of the worlds crop area have unsafe levels of mycotoxin contamination. One particular mycotoxin, known as aflatoxin, is known to cause up to one third of liver cancers globally. It’s a problem all across the world, and climate change is bringing it to the forefront, as the mycotoxin producing fungi thrive in the evolving climate conditions in equatorial countries.
It was during this time that I also found a passion for the analytical side of science alongside the food safety aspect. As I progressed through my master’s in advanced food safety and looked for what to do next, I focused my search on aspects such as sampling and food safety risk analysis, and this is where I learnt of the Food Safety Coalition.
The Food Safety Coalition
The overall aim of the Coalition was to identify specific actions to mobilize behind to progress a long-term transformational food safety agenda. During the founding of the coalition, participants discussed the impacts and challenges of aflatoxin risk management, the tools available and lessons learned from earlier efforts around the world, as well as the key challenges surrounding prediction models and adoption of best food safety practices.
Currently, the Coalition is working to develop actionable plans that can be driven at pace, which have been segregated into four workstreams, running in parallel. I am part of workstream 2, focused on risk analysis and the communication of hazard data.
The project I’m working on is based on the premise that there is a need for advocacy to demonstrate the benefits to a country or industry of investing in data and evidence generation. For example, a risk prediction model to better target control and risk analysis.
If the aim of a country or industry is to build predictive technologies to enable helpful decision support tools, then there is a requirement for high quality data. It is the quality and robustness of data that goes into sampling and testing which determines the accuracy of a prediction model and its prediction capabilities. This includes having a broad range of data for common commodities, such as corn, wheat or peanuts, passing through the global food supply chain.
One of the most interesting discoveries I have made in my research so far is the imbalance between the commodities that trigger Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications and those that are studied in the literature. Through a systematic review of the risk assessments published between 2016-2022 we found that the second and third most common categories with RASFF notifications were fruits and vegetables, and herbs and spices, yet there are significant gaps in the research for these commodities. I hope that by highlighting these inconsistencies through the Food Safety Coalition we can advocate for the development of a full set of data across the whole food supply chain, starting with the most at-risk raw materials, thereby increasing food safety.
The secondary focus of my work is ensuring that, once we know what studies we need to conduct, we also know who we should be sharing the results with to achieve the greatest gains in food safety. At present most communication infrastructure is focused on the developed world as these are the countries that have the funding on the research side, and the access to testing capabilities in the supply chain on the industrial side. However, the burden of foodborne diseases in any given country correlates with their socio-economic development, so if we want to increase food safety across the whole supply chain, we need to work together with the local farmers and suppliers from developing countries right from the start.
There are, however, unique challenges to this endeavor. As an example, in developed countries, we can rely on internet access to ensure people can reliably obtain and access online food safety databases, however Wi-Fi access is not guaranteed in small holder farms in developing nations. Similarly, schooling requirements vary across the globe, and many may not have the literacy knowledge or technical capabilities to conduct proper sampling.
As part of this coalition, we have the opportunity to map out what successful programs are already doing to build capability and create a support platform to help guide sampling and national efforts to generate data. By approaching other organizations such as Scientific Animations Without Borders we have the potential to create easily understood instructional videos to help guide sampling, which will directly improve global food safety databases.
So, what’s next?
There is a lot to be done to solve for food safety, but by setting defined actions to take as part of the Food Safety Coalition I am hopeful that we will make real progress over the next year or two. It’s important to remember that no single entity can tackle these global food safety challenges alone, and everyone, from large players in the industry to individual students in academia, has a role to play in improving food systems. I would encourage anyone that has an interest in food safety to see what small actions they can take in their community to help bring about the transformational change required to help ensure safe food for all.
About Kiran Bhardwaj
Now on placement supporting Food Safety Coalition, she has undertaken a systematic review of risk assessments published between 2016-2022 and also developed a model framework for a responsible, ethical and fact-based risk communication to help address the challenges of dietary intake of aflatoxin through various food commodities.