Safety first: how innovation can counter food contamination

By Katerina Mansour - 22 September 2020

Many of us have had this dreadful experience: food poisoning that’s so bad it makes us question whether we want to ever eat again. However, we sometimes shrug off or overlook just how dangerous contaminated food can be. According to the WHO, unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances can cause over 200 diseases and leads to an estimated 420,000 deaths each year.

Numerous factors contribute to the risk of food contaminations. Over the past decades, globalization has been an aggravating factor. Nowadays food chains are longer, spanning across different countries throughout the world. Indeed, food today travels throughout many different locations, giving it numerous different opportunities for contamination, which can easily go undetected with so many different players involved and time being of the essence in food production. This complicates the investigation of foodborne disease outbreaks or the implementation of product recalls in cases of emergency.

As such, the food safety testing market has been growing steadily in recent years. It was valued at $18 billion in 2020 and is estimated to reach a value of $40 billion by 2030.

Growing consumer awareness of food contamination risks

High-profile incidents have gradually helped raise awareness amongst consumers of how important food safety is. Indeed, Chipotle and McDonald’s food contamination controversies, in addition to the outbreak of E.coli contaminated lettuce in the USA, have led many consumers to demand higher safety standards.

With suspicions of the novel coronavirus pandemic having first spread from a food market in Wuhan, concerns surrounding food safety have further been exacerbated on a global scale.

In a survey by EFSA, when asked which issues concerned respondents most with regards to food, the top answers included pesticide, antibiotic, hormone or steroid residues. In fact, these are two of the most prominently discussed issues by consumers and in the media.

Why should companies care about food safety?

Beyond the obvious health hazard, food contamination cases represent a significant reputational concern for corporates and can lead to high profile firings. For example, the Blue Bell Creameries CEO pled guilty to criminal charges of distributing adulterated ice cream products. Sanitary conditions were not being followed and the company knowingly continued to ship products tested positive for listeria.

Furthermore, companies like Chipotle experienced financial backlash for its outbreaks:

There are a plethora of ways in which food can become contaminated throughout the supply chain. The CDC provides an extensive list of potential risks in the production chain, including:

  • Fields sprayed with contaminated water for irrigation
  • Hens with infected reproductive organs contaminating eggs before they’re laid
  • Cooks using cutting boards or knives to cut raw chicken and then using them on other products such as vegetables
  • During refrigeration, meat juices getting on items that are eaten raw
  • Contaminated surfaces within processing lines spreading germs to food touching said surfaces

Some experts have argued that regulations and food safety enforcement mechanisms are struggling to keep up with the increasingly industrialised and interconnected nature of the food production process today.

So to preserve their consumers’ health as well as their reputation, businesses need to be proactive in ensuring the systems they’ve put in place are actually effective. To do this, corporates might want to look into the startup scene for innovative solutions. Indeed, among our database of rated startups, there is one in particular that offers a range of solutions to test food safety measures.

Novolyze’s food safety solutions

Remember how we mentioned Chipotle’s disastrous E.Coli breakout? Well, it seems the food chain learned its lesson as it launched a startup accelerator called Chipotle Luminaries Project in 2019 to encourage greater innovation and safety in the food industry. Among its first cohort was the rated startup Novolyze, which markets a range of ready-to-use non-pathogenic surrogate bacteria for food production plant validation.

Its main product SurroNov® consists of microorganisms that mimic the resistance of foodborne pathogens (e.g. E.Coli, Salmonella) under different kinds of stress, such as heat. This allows food manufacturers to validate the efficacy of preventive controls and processes put in place in a production line in a cost-efficient way. The solution is backed by strong R&D and has the advantage that it can be applied to both wet and dry foods.

The French startup also develops FoodSafetyGuardian™, a software to automatically analyses deviations in production processes in real-time, in order to rapidly detect critical issues.

Novolyze placed in the top 10% of all startups rated by Early Metrics. Beyond its patented technology, the rating highlighted the startup’s international presence (with an office in the USA and significant sales abroad) and Karim Kinouche’s strong market expertise as some of its key strengths.

In conclusion, the stakes will remain high when it comes to risks of food contamination. It’s likely that more and more consumers will become aware of the dangers of foodborne diseases and demand more from Food & Beverage businesses. The Covid-19 pandemic has further helped increase public awareness, as consumers now question whether their food could spread the virus. Though there is no concrete evidence suggesting that to be the case, these concerns will encourage greater caution and care over the way food is handled throughout the supply chain. Collaboration with innovative startups, such as Novolyze, could empower food corporations to put in place effective sanitation practices and keep their consumers safe.

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