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07 Mar 2022 — The latest Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report investigates how global drivers such as economic growth, climate change, population growth and evolving consumer behavioral patterns will shape future food safety.  

The objective of the report is to anticipate future challenges and risks presented by new foods such as jellyfish, edible insects, cell-cultured meat or new technologies including blockchain, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, to serve as a guide to policymakers.

“We are in an era where technological and scientific innovations are revolutionizing the agri-food sector, including the food safety arena. It is important for countries to keep pace with these advances, particularly in a critical area like food safety, and for FAO to provide proactive advice on the application of science and innovation,” says FAO chief scientist Ismahane Elouafi.

In 2021 the FAO urged that diverse and well-connected agri-food systems are better equipped to absorb sudden shocks like COVID-19 and secure food supply.

Mapping emerging food issues
The report, “Thinking about the future of food safety – A foresight report,” maps out key emerging issues in food and agriculture with a focus on food safety implications. 

It is based on the premise that monitoring the early signs of the challenges new foods and food technologies present through systematic intelligence gathering increases the likelihood that policymakers will be better prepared to tackle them.

The report covers climate change, new food sources and production systems, the growing number of farms and vegetable gardens in cities, changing consumer behavior, the circular economy, microbiome science (bacteria, viruses, fungi), technological and scientific innovation and food fraud.

Toxins and contaminants under the spotlightAccording to the FAO’s latest foresight report, 3D printed foods, cell-cultured foods, and plant-based foods should be produced transparently. 
Increased exposure to contaminants is one of the key areas spotlighted in the FAO report. The impact of changing weather patterns and temperatures is of concern. Recent evidence points to a severe effect of climate change on various biological and chemical contaminants in food by altering their virulence, occurrence and distribution, the report finds. 

Traditionally cooler zones are becoming warmer and more conducive to agriculture, opening new habitats for agricultural pests and toxic fungal species. For instance, aflatoxins, usually considered a problem in some parts of Africa, are now present in the Mediterranean region.

While edible jellyfish, algae and insects are low in carbohydrates and high in protein content, it spoils quickly at higher temperatures. It can serve as vectors of pathogenic bacteria that can adversely affect human health. 

Seaweed consumption is becoming popular beyond Asia because of its nutritional value and sustainability. The crop does not need fertilizers to grow and helps combat ocean acidification. 

FAO’s potential source of concern is seaweed’s ability to accumulate high levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. 

Interest in edible insects is rising in response to growing awareness of the environmental impacts of food production. While they are a good source of protein, fiber, fatty acids, and micronutrients like iron, zinc, manganese and magnesium, they can harbor foodborne contaminants and provoke allergic reactions.

Regulation needed for plant-based and cell-cultured foods
According to the FAO report, more consumers are becoming vegan and vegetarian due to animal welfare concerns, and the impact of livestock on the environment requires heightened awareness about food safety and allergens.

The critical concern of using animal-based serum in the cell-cultured media is that it may introduce microbiological and chemical contamination.

New food technologies such as intelligent packaging that extend the shelf life of food products need to be followed through with best-practice standards, access to reliable and curated reference databases, communication of lessons learned and transparency in data sharing across stakeholders, the report notes. 

These technologies include blockchain technology that ensures food can be traced along supply chains and 3D printers for producing sweets and “meat-like” textures using plant-based ingredients.

By Inga de Jong


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