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Talking about foresight with a focus on new food sources and production systems


After the recent FAO publication Thinking about the future of food safety – A foresight report was released we caught up with two of the authors, Vittorio Fattori, FAO Food Safety Officer, and Keya Mukherjee, FAO Food Safety Specialist, to hear their thoughts about the document. Fattori also recorded a video, providing an overview of foresight and some of the issues covered by the publication. (Watch the video here: Using foresight in food safety)

Our first questions were for Vittorio Fattori:

  • Foresight is in the news, but what is foresight? And why is it important in food safety?

It is important to understand that foresight is not about predicting the future. In fact, the fundamental thought-process behind the foresight concept is acknowledging that the roots of multiple plausible future scenarios exist today in the form of early signs. Foresight is a structured set of approaches that entail monitoring these signs to form a systematic gathering of intelligence. The analysis of this intelligence allow us to better prepare for both emerging opportunities and challenges.

The food safety landscape today is highly complex. Food safety authorities need to keep pace with the ongoing transformation of the agrifood systems and pursuit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, while navigating the potential threats, disruptions and challenges that may arise. Foresight in food safety can enable the timely identification of drivers and related trends, both within and outside agrifood systems, that have implications for food safety and therefore also for consumer health, national economy and international trade.

  • So, what are the different drivers and trends covered in the publication?

The report covers a broad range of areas (drivers and trends): climate change, new foods and food production systems, changing consumer behaviour, agriculture within urban spaces, circular economy, microbiome science, new technologies and scientific advances, and food fraud. While for some of these topics the food safety implications are apparent, for others these may not be as obvious. Therefore, the onus was to showcase some of the major food safety implications for the various emerging areas, while also highlighting the various benefits associated with them, where applicable of course.

Keya Mukherjee shared insights on new foods and what is next:

  • Of all the different areas covered in the publication you specifically wanted to talk about new food sources and production systems today. Why so?

Because it is an area that people around the world are becoming increasingly more familiar with. And not just through the media but through their own experiences - be it from eating foods that have seaweeds in them, trying out a new protein bar made from cricket flour or drinking that morning coffee with an oat-based creamer. We are all slowly getting accustomed to foods that were perhaps once not found as readily in our respective regions.

The term ‘new food sources’ used in the publication denote those that have not been widely consumed either because they have recently emerged into the global retail space thanks to technological innovations, or because their consumption has been historically restricted to specific regions in the world. Such foods are also considered ‘new’ within the Codex system. New food production systems reflect novel innovations or advancements in food technologies that help to produce some of the new foods of interest.

These new foods and food production systems can bring tremendous opportunities to meet some of the food security and sustainability challenges ahead of us and the area is very likely to grow even more over time. This makes it important to understand the benefits they might bring as well as evaluate any risks associated with them - including food safety and quality concerns as they also have implications for public health as well as regulatory frameworks and trade. In fact, this particular topic is also receiving the attention of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which underscores the growing importance of this sector.

  • What new foods and food production systems does the publication cover and can you tell us briefly what the different food safety issues associated with them are?

The new foods covered in our report are edible insects, seaweeds, jellyfish and plant-based alternatives. Cell-based food production system is also discussed. 3-D printing of food is explained in brief. Another area of interest also covered in the publication from a food production point of view is agriculture conducted within urban areas and the food safety considerations for that.

Just like all foods, these new foods also require food safety consideration, with some issues that are quite unique to them. For instance, the allergenic potential of insects, especially for those who are allergic to crustaceans or the ability of seaweeds to accumulate heavy metals (like arsenic and cadmium) from the surroundings. Ambiguity in the naming of products can cause labelling and regulatory challenges, such as for plant-based alternatives or cell-based foods. Lack of established hygiene practices for 3-D food printers may increase the chances of microbial contamination of the printed food products. The other major issue is that there are still a lot of knowledge gaps which need to be identified and addressed. It is only through thorough assessment of food safety hazards associated with these new foods that appropriate hygiene and manufacturing practices can be established and relevant regulatory frameworks developed.

  • So what is the way forward with the area of new food sources and production systems and how can FAO support this endeavour?

As science evolves, foresight will help food safety authorities to stay abreast of the latest advancements, and monitor fast-evolving trends such as new foods, which can help address some of the challenges ahead. Foresight also provides the means of looking at issues holistically, from a multisectoral point of view, which is inherent in a food systems way of thinking. With regard to the new foods sector, there will be the need to further analyze any food safety hazards associated with harvesting or production, processing and consumption of such food products so to help establish appropriate hygiene and manufacturing practices as well as develop relevant regulatory frameworks. Furthermore, investments in research to fill in some of the knowledge gaps will be needed to take advantage of opportunities offered by new foods. Finally, it will also be important to foster close collaboration among stakeholders to build a multidisciplinary platform from the get-go to sustainably integrate new foods into food systems.

Finally, since effective foresight relies quite heavily on gathering information from sources across a broad network, FAO is well placed to collect, analyze, and disseminate information, that is both unbiased and trusted, on various emerging issues from numerous fronts. By dissemination of such information, FAO can also provide support to countries, in particular those that have limited resources, in implementing their own foresight activities.


Download the report

Read more about FAO’s work on foresight in food safety

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