By European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST)
Europe has been rocked with its share of meat-industry scandals over the years: Mad Cow disease, 1986 through 2001, Europe’s horse meat scandal in 2013, and, more recently, Germany’s Listeria outbreak in 2019, which left several dead. What is being done about it?
We interview Dr Bojan Blagojevic, a scientist on the front line of meat control and Chair of RIBMINS COST Action, to talk about the future of food safety, his COST Action, and why the next food scandal is only a matter of time.
COST: Is there a link between past meat scandals, your current research and RIBMINS? Would you say that you started your research because the meat-chain lacked proper transparency, and quality controls were sub-optimal?
I would like to distinguish between a problem and a scandal. There are problems that occur regularly over the years. For example, food-borne infection is a problem that can never be completely eliminated. And some problems, perhaps not intentionally, grab more attention than they might warrant. That said, some scandals are indeed scandals, such as the one about horse meat. That’s classic fraud: horse meat passed off as beef. I would call that a scandal.
I would not say that we started our Action because of these past scandals, but rather that this Action may lead to a lower likelihood of such scandals and problems occurring in the future.
COST: How can such large-scale scandals repeatedly occur despite the EU’s current controls?
Today’s food supply and meat chains are extremely complex and very diverse, with numerous hazards that can jeopardise meat safety and public health. Most of these hazards can enter the meat chain at multiple points, making their control very challenging. Despite the rather good system currently in place, food-borne disease outbreaks still occasionally happen. In addition to that, the sheer complexity of the food/meat chain allows other problems to emerge, such as those surrounding meat provenance.
COST: Could another horse meat scandal happen tomorrow?
Yes, it is possible and could again be a problem. I work in meat safety, and, more generally, with food safety and public health. Politicians might avoid admitting that there are potential problems so as to avoid spreading panic, or to avoid sowing distrust in their government and public-health protection systems. But as a scientist, I must speak openly and honestly, of course without causing a panic as well. And I can say that such scandals will happen again. It’s the job of the scientist to be open and to acknowledge this, despite every measure we might take. All we can do is to reduce the probability of these problems to an acceptable level, not eliminate them entirely.
Talking about the food chain from farm to table, where is the weakest link?
All of them could be weak. But it depends on the type of hazard causing disease. In some cases, farms are the main cause, in other cases it’s slaughter houses, and in others it’s households. I’ll give you an example. If you consider parasites such as Trichinella, the crucial point to control is at the level of our farms, meaning at the pre-harvest level. But in Germany in 2019, it was Listeria that caused the outbreak of the disease, and even deaths. In this case, the critical point was at a level closer to the consumer, meaning at the post-harvest level: cross contamination, bacterial growth and/or improper meat preparation caused the problem. Given this, I don’t think any of the links in the food chain are inherently weaker than others in general, but each can have weaknesses inherent to specific hazards.
100 years ago, food chains were very simple: food usually came from local markets. Today, the meat products you consume may come from different continents! That brings complexity in food controls. And for this reason, our COST Action offers concrete solutions to improve today’s meat-safety system.
Which countries in the EU are leading the way, practically speaking? Which, in your opinion, are the safest?
Among European countries, Scandinavia and the Netherlands currently have the best meat-safety systems. And why? Because they have been implementing a risk-based approach to food control for some time now.
What does a risk-based approach mean?
In general, various hazards cause disease. There are hundreds of different hazards, such as strains of bacteria (Listeria being only one of them), viruses, chemical substances… The list goes on. Each of them requires specific control measures. But it’s simply impossible to control 100% of all possible hazards simultaneously. For that reason, the most advanced countries have implemented controls using a risk-based approach, focusing on the most pressing problems.
So, for example, they might determine that ten specific hazards are responsible for 90% of the problems, and then concentrate on controlling those ten. The other, less relevant hazards are also controlled, but with fewer resources spent. And in so doing, the overall risk for public health could be considered as acceptable, and our food safe.
In some countries, people are attempting to control everything, or focusing on problems that are of less relevance. This could be for any number of reasons, including tradition: that’s just the way have always done this. As a result, they control nothing properly, or wind up controlling lesser risks at the expense of greater ones.
How can EU protect/inform the consumer?
In today’s modern world, meat production and meat safety need to be approached simultaneously. And the protection of consumer health must be science-based. Our new, longitudinally integrated risk-based meat-safety assurance system — the subject of this COST Action — offers an opportunity for more efficient meat safety and quality controls at the level of meat producers. Therefore, the EU should invest in our new system’s full development and implementation, as well as in enhanced regulatory controls for this new system. This will ultimately lead to an overall reduction in risk for the consumer, and to the improvement of public health in Europe. And let’s not forget that even with such a system in place, many food-safety problems arise after meat reaches the consumer. Therefore, the EU should also invest more in consumer education in order to raise awareness around issues of food safety.
What do you perceive to be the biggest impact of the Action?
The biggest impact was in the training of more than 100 young researchers in this new risk-based meat-safety assurance system. They came from academia, regulatory agencies, and industry, from across Europe as well as several overseas countries. Our numerous joint scientific publications in high-quality journals such as Food Control, Meat Science, and Trends in Food Science and Technology are having a great impact. There is also a Special Issue in Food Control dedicated solely to RIBMINS work that should be finalised by mid-2023.
What other problems are left to tackle in the field? How do you see its development?
Assuring meat safety and public health is challenging, with numerous problems needing to be tackled. Veterinary meat inspection, a cornerstone of meat safety, is a difficult job loaded with many public-health responsibilities. In part, our research aims to introduce digital technologies into the day-to-day work of official veterinarians, making their work easier and more efficient. Countries such as Norway and Denmark are investing significant funds into research and implementation, but this must be a European-level investment if these technologies are to be properly developed and more widely deployed.
All of us expect meat to be safe, and meat production and control to be transparent. A modernisation process has recently started as a direct result of legislative changes in the European Union. The implementation of a new risk-based meat-safety assurance system will no doubt be a slow and careful process. But this is the only way to ensure food safety and the general public health.