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World Food Safety Day: Ensuring Food Safety and Quality

Illustration of Factory Assembly Line

World Food Safety Day takes place every year on 7 June. This World Health Organization (WHO) initiative aims to draw attention to the importance of food safety and quality, and inspire action to help detect, manage, and prevent foodborne risks globally. The theme for this year’s World Food Safety Day is ‘Prepare for the unexpected’, which relates to being ready for any kind of food safety incident.

A food safety incident is a potential or established health risk associated with food consumption. This can happen due to accidents, poor management, scams or natural events. Preventing and managing food safety incidents require devoted efforts from legislators, authorities, farmers and businesses in food operations, but we as consumers can also play an active role by improving our familiarity with food safety and quality in South Africa.

Why managing food safety and quality is vital

There are many reasons why food safety and quality regulations exist and must be enforced.

Firstly, foodborne illnesses caused by contaminated foods can result in serious health complications and even death. The WHO estimates that millions of people are affected by foodborne illnesses globally each year, and up to 42 000 die from them. These numbers can be lowered by better managing safety and quality standards.

Secondly, food companies need to pay attention. If food is not safe for human consumption, there will be economic consequences for the food company who supplied it. If a food product is contaminated and people get sick from it, it can lead to recalls, legal action, and damage to the brand's reputation, causing financial losses for the company.

Lastly, food safety is key in gaining consumers’ confidence and trust. Consumers expect and deserve protection against risks found in food, which is why appropriate regulatory systems are important. When purchasing food items, consumers trust that they are safe and the nutritional details being shared are true. If a consumer suspects that the food is not up to standard, they will switch brands, which will lead to a decline in sales.

Regulations in South Africa

In South Africa, the following national departments work together to enforce legislation regarding the safety and quality of food.

  • The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) – The DAFF regulates the safety and quality of agricultural and animal products in line with acts of parliament, thereby ensuring the standard of products supplied for consumption.
  • The National Department of Health – The National Department of Health requires that all foodstuffs are safe for human consumption in terms of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act (1972). This Act accounts for the manufacture, labelling, sale, and importation of foodstuffs.
  • The Department of Trade and Industry – The South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Trade and Industry and regulates canned meat and frozen and canned fishery products under the Standards Act (1993).

Our food laws are based on the presumption of safety. Where a substance is not naturally present in food, so an additive or contaminant, for example, maximum limits are specified. Most of South Africa’s food laws and regulations are proactive, which means that government approval is required for the release of a product on the market. This protects both consumers and companies in the food industry.

Processing methods to enhance food safety and quality

Food processing refers to any method used to turn fresh foods into food products. During this process, different methods are followed to sterilise food to remove all kinds of harmful pathogens and ensure its safety and quality.

Different methods are chosen for different kinds of foods as they each impact the products differently.

Steam sterilisation

Steam sterilisation is the process of using bursts of steam to kill pathogens in food. It’s a straightforward sterilisation process that offers numerous benefits to food processing companies. One of its biggest benefits is that it ensures a low cross-contamination risk. Since it’s a no-contact method, there is no physical contact with food or food-touching surfaces. This eliminates the risk of contamination between food and equipment.

With steam sterilisation, there is no need for the use of harsh chemicals to sterilise food since the temperature of the steam is high enough to kill harmful pathogens. This offers health benefits to consumers and financial benefits to food processors since they save on additional expenses.

Flash freezing

Flash freezing is the process of quickly applying extremely low temperatures to food items, thereby completely freezing them in minutes. The fast chilling prevents ice crystals from forming in the food, which often happens during conventional freezing. This ensures that the texture and flavour of the food are kept, while also minimising moisture loss. Smaller ice crystals may form during the flash freezing process, but these are kinder to the cellular structure of most food items and do not compromise its nutritional content.

From a safety point of view, the rapid freezing process reduces the risk of contamination by getting rid of harmful pathogens. The process has become the go-to for poultry products as it drastically lowers the chances of contamination and ensures that the meat is safe for consumption.

In essence, flash freezing’s ability to preserve the texture, flavour, and nutritional value of food items has transformed the food industry. It has become preferable to conventional freezing due to the countless benefits it offers.

Shelf-life testing

Shelf-life testing refers to the range of tests that are conducted on food products to determine at what point in the future they won’t be safe for consumption anymore. The results of these tests are helpful for consumers as they produce an expiration date, which can be used to determine the duration that food can be kept before it starts to deteriorate. These dates are usually indicated with a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ label.

The shelf life of a product starts as soon as it’s been processed, packaged, and is ready for distribution. The duration of its shelf life is dependent on the manufacturing process followed, ingredients used, type of packaging, and storage conditions. During its shelf life, food should remain safe to eat, but it should also maintain its appearance, odour, texture, and flavour so that it is appealing to consumers.

There are three key areas involved in the process of testing shelf life.

Microbiological shelf-life tests are the most important. These are conducted to determine the microbiological safety of the products. Not only does it test for pathogens that make the food harmful to eat, but it also determines at what point in time the food will become dangerous to eat.

The other two tests are chemistry quality tests and sensory and physical tests. Chemistry quality tests are conducted to determine the ‘freshness’ of a food item. This is done by checking its moisture (water content), acidity levels, pH, and so forth. Sensory and physical tests refer to taste tests. During these tests, a panel of experts perform a range of taste tests to determine whether a food product will remain safe and maintain its integrity (i.e., appearance, odour, texture, and flavour) for the duration of its shelf life.

How can I protect myself?

The government and other regulative organisations in the food industry can only do so much to protect consumers. Companies in the food industry do everything they can to ensure the safety and quality of the products they provide, but consumers also have a role to play to keep themselves safe.

Some ways to protect yourself against foodborne illnesses:
  • Read the labels and check expiration dates on products.
  • Never buy cans or glass jars with dents, cracks, or bulging lids. This could indicate that the food was exposed to a contaminant.
  • Refrigerate perishable food items as soon as you get home from the store. Same with frozen foods; put them in the freezer as soon as you get home.
  • Thaw food in your refrigerator overnight or in the microwave before cooking, don’t leave it outside all day.
  • Cook meats thoroughly. Especially pork, fish, and poultry.
  • Cook eggs thoroughly.
  • Use a plastic cutting board instead of a wooden one when prepping food. Bacteria can hide in wooden boards and multiply.

You as a consumer need to make sure that you are informed about potential food-related risks and practise the necessary safety requirements when handling, preparing, and storing your food.

FAQs

What is World Food Safety Day?

World Food Safety Day takes place every year on 7 June. It aims to draw attention to the importance of food safety and inspire action to help prevent, detect, and manage foodborne risks globally.

Is food quality and safety regulated in South Africa?

Yes. In South Africa, the following national departments work together to enforce legislation regarding the safety of food items being sold for consumption.

  • The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF)
  • The National Department of Health
  • The Department of Trade and Industry

Can foodborne illnesses be eliminated?

Pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses are difficult to detect and can survive even the harshest conditions, making them tough to eliminate. But there are standards in place to try and prevent food from being contaminated as far as possible.

What is my responsibility as consumer?

You should be informed about food-related issues and practise the necessary safety requirements when handling, preparing, and storing your food.

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