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Food supply contamination threat mentioned in UK risk register

The likelihood and impact of contamination of the food supply in the United Kingdom have been assessed in an updated risk register.

The UK government rated food supply contamination as four out of five for likelihood and three out of five for impact in the 2023 national risk register. This means the likelihood of food supply contamination is considered as being between 5 percent and 25 percent and its impact would be “moderate” on a scale that ranges from “minor” to “catastrophic.”

The risk register was last published in 2020 and while food was mentioned, the same rating system was not used.

Supply chain information
Leo Parkington and Zoe Betts, of the law firm Pinsent Masons, said that food supply contamination presents a regulatory and reputational risk for businesses.

Parkington said the updated risk register should prompt food producers to ensure they know their supply chain.

“In practice, this means undertaking proper due diligence on suppliers across the supply chain to understand, for example, which farms are producing certain products, the factory conditions in which the products are processed, and how they are stored and transported,” he said.

“It is also important to include clauses in supplier contracts compelling suppliers to comply with legislation, cooperate with product recalls, audits and regulatory investigations, and comply with detailed operational and procedural requirements — such as around refrigeration temperatures when goods are in transit — as well as labeling specifications to inform consumers and hospitality businesses how to use and store the product.”

Contamination could occur during production, processing, distribution and preparation and may result from cross-contamination, poor hygiene, inappropriate storage or due to animal waste.

The worst-case scenario is based on an incident involving a pathogen in the food chain resulting in illness, hospitalization and possible fatalities in a moderate to large number of people. It was assumed that the type and source of contamination would not be identified immediately, and traceability of the implicated product would be complex and time consuming.

Response to effectively manage such an event would include the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and public health agencies as well as mitigating the risk of widespread loss of consumer confidence.

Potential consequences
Betts said businesses need to understand the consequences of contamination and what to do if food is affected. She added the company may be required to act immediately, irrespective of fault, if their intervention could protect consumers.

“All food business operators need to have a suite of comprehensive policies and procedures which can be implemented swiftly in the event of a food-related issue. Crisis management plans and teams should be appropriate for the nature and size of the business, including details of any cross-border contacts if products have been sold in foreign markets,” she said.

“The plan should be trained out to those staff members who would need to respond to the crisis, and it should also be regularly tested and updated – not least to ensure that key members of the team still work for the organization.” 

The risk register also covers human, animal and plant health including the risk of outbreaks as well as chemical contamination of the food or water supply.

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