dimanche 2 février 2014

4- Food safety

Today I'll speak about a subject that concerns almost everyone, and that is very polemical. Food safety. In recent years, cases of poisoning, more or less serious, and alerts have been numerous, but generally insufficiently explained. We can gather the cases in two main categories, which I will talk you separately.

Part 1: pesticides residues
Everyone is bothered by this topic. Recent alerts have affected the presence of illegal residues in Europe, or in rare cases, exceeding authorized level. Nevertheless today, as I said in a previous post, things have changed a lot.
But first, what is it?
Crops, like any living being, are subject to various parasites attacks, diseases or pests (insects, mites, birds, rodents), or climatic stress (frost, hail, floods, droughts, heat stroke, windstorms). The farmer has to protect his crops using pesticides, also known as plant protection products. Depending on the situation, the products act curatively, preventively so repulsive or attractive, or as anti-stress or healing.
Like in any living organism, these products, when applied, will act superficially or internally in the plant, and then gradually degrade, to completely disappear within a variable period, ranging from several days to several weeks, depending on the molecule and the crop.
Degradation occurs under the combined effect of the decomposition by the plant itself (hydrolysis), the decomposition by light (UV rays action), vaporization by heat, oxidation by rainwater and air oxygen, and rainout (and subsequent degradation by soil microorganisms).
There are two groups of pesticides: pesticides from synthetic chemistry, and "organic" pesticides, that is from natural origin, and whose manufacturing process does not use synthesis techniques (there are exceptions, and we'll talk about in another post).
Among the natural methods of crop protection, there is a category that I don’t include in this post: auxiliary organisms, which are living beings who, by their natural action, will act in place of pesticides. These are bacteria, viruses, fungi, auxiliary nematodes, beneficial insects and predatory animals such as bats, birds, raptors, foxes, snakes, genets, etc. They are living beings, so their evolution is different, and they don’t leave any trace of residue, although we could doubt about that, as regards bacteria, viruses, fungi or nematodes.

Let’s go back to our molecules.
Synthesis molecules.
The same way as pharmaceutical molecules, they undergo a long and expensive process of study previously to the sale authorization. For more details, please read my publication No. 2 again. What matters today is the notion of residues of pesticides.
For each molecule, will be issued, at the European level, and at the level of each country outside the European Community, an MRL (maximum residue limit), expressed in ppm that is in mg of the molecule per kg of food. It is the maximum level beyond which health authorities consider that the product may present a health hazard in the short and in the long term. The reality is that levels set as official MRLs, are between 100 and 200 times lower than levels of toxicity determined by certification studies.
This MRL has legal value. Any food that exceeds MRL is prohibited to circulation and must be destroyed. It is considered as contaminated and unfit for consumption. Alerts in recent years have concerned this kind of situation.
Checks are carried out at the starting point (grower’s field /or packing station), by plant protection services, veterinary services or health authorities, then possibly during transport by Customs or in destination in the storage stations or retail stores.
If a truck is controlled with a MRL exceeding or with presence of an unauthorized molecule, it is immediately sent to a specialized center for unloading and destruction of food. The sender would be heavily penalized with immediate cessation of its activity, at least temporarily.
If a retail store is in the same situation, and if it can’t attest its good faith, could be charged with endangering public health, with all the consequences that may result.

Organic molecules
Here we have a real problem. The organic farmer has the disposal of certain products which have been approved for the fight against phytosanitary problems. But today, there is a legal limbo regarding these products at the European level. The product manufacturer is not obliged to declare the exact content. He is allowed to say, for example "Neem extract”. The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is a tree from India, whose seeds produce oil with insecticidal properties. The main compound, with recognized insecticidal properties is called azadirachtin. But what other natural molecules are composing this extract? These molecules are they dangerous to human health? Are there residues of these molecules in fresh fruits and vegetables treated with natural oil? In what proportions?
On the other hand, Is this extract pure? Are there additives in the formulation (the product as it is sold to the farmer)? What are these additives? These additives are they allowed in organic agriculture? These additives may have they a health hazard?
In most cases there is no answer to these questions, and no serious study about it.
I am not doing organic farming, but I include in farming methods and programs of technical management, several elements allowed in organic farming. I have a personal experience of a similar in 2012. After a very dry and cold spring, with frost problems, we began the harvest, one week late, at the end of April. A few days before, the forecast announced rain and we decided to spray with an organic fungicide to protect against fruit rots with no residue risk. We use a known product, with an attested efficiency level and approved for this use in organic farming, and as such, exempt employment pre harvest interval and MRL. It is a "Rutaceae extract" large family of plants, some of which have fungicidal properties. Four days after the expedition of the first fruits, we received a claiming from an important German client, for the presence of a quaternary ammonium residue (a disinfectant used in food industry and health services, but prohibited on foods). As this is a product that we use in our amenities for disinfecting packing equipment, we first checked our cleaning and hygiene procedures and we took samples to send to the laboratory. As we didn’t find anything, we checked our field procedures to, and we analyzed, among other things, the organic product. Surprise! We found a high level of quaternary ammonium. In this case, the manufacturer had included it in the formulation as an additive, without declaring it. The following question is allowed: which was the real active ingredient of the product? The plant extract or quaternary ammonium? After protests and complaints (we were not the only affected company in this case, of course) the product was withdrawn from the market, but the manufacturer had no problem, because there was no breach of the law. A large survey was conducted at European level, to determine if there were other similar cases, causing the withdrawal of several products.
This example demonstrates only that the approval procedures and controls are insufficient, and this case did not change the law regarding approvals organic pesticides.
It makes the consumer believe he buys healthy products without risk to health, but the reality is very different.
The market of organic products has attracted a large number of unscrupulous people who use it to enrich themselves at the expense of unsuspecting and uninformed consumers, and at the expense of organic farmers who have to lead their crop until harvest with a minimum of problems, to get by economically.
On the other hand, authorities have not established sufficient procedures to ensure that products used in organic farming are really able and consistent, are possible to analyze, and have a traceability that allows know exactly its whole composition.
If we add to this, the majority of organic products are less efficient than their synthetic equivalents, consider that the farmer is obliged, to obtain a sufficient yield of marketable production, to spray more frequently, so with a high risk of residue. But the controls are not made, since the majority of active molecules are not reported or are unknown. A laboratory can only measure the presence of known molecules and has to previously calibrate its equipment with a standard solution.

Part 2: bacteriological safety
Paradoxically, this topic bothers people less, although the real danger is considerably higher. This aspect has, at first glance, no difference according to the mode of production. However, we must emphasize some important points.
Conventional farming freely uses synthetic or natural fertilizers.
Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers, favoring natural fertilizers, including manure which has an important place. These elements have to undergo a composting process, which prepares them for their agronomic use, and cleans them (a good composting eliminates all bacteria in animal manure).
However the composting process, if not complete, or if not well controlled, don’t totally clean manure. On the other hand, fresh manure, before composting, is sometimes used to warm up cold soils in the spring, in order to improve the agronomic performance of the crop, or to increase the earliness. Under these conditions, the bacteriological risk actually exists.
Recent cases of Escherichia coli in Europe (organic sprouted seeds in Germany) or Listeriosis in the United States (organically grown melons), that caused a hundred deaths in total, show that it’s essential to be extremely cautious about the use of these techniques, and above all, that health checks are not at the level of risk. To my knowledge, there are no similar cases from conventional agriculture.

Part 3: retailing
Another conflict point. I'm not particularly favorable to supermarkets for the retailing of fresh produce because they abuse their highly strong position to negotiate commercial terms, and it is finally the grower who suffers the most, not always succeeding to cover its production costs. Being myself a fruit grower, I can’t endorse practices that are sometimes grossly unfair. Furthermore, the prices proposed to the consumer are often abusive, and unrelated to the price paid to the grower, and the quality of products presented may be highly unsatisfactory.
It must be recognized that, in terms of food safety, it is today the best controlled system. It should be understood, that a supermarket chain has an urgent need to consolidate its reputation. But competition is fierce between supermarket brands. They spy, take samples for analysis from their competitors, and don’t hesitate to publish the slightest deviation about food safety. There are many cases of this type, especially in Germany. Means of controls in place are very hard, and the slightest deviation from producer may cancel trade agreements. In the example I previously mentioned, our German client put in abeyance all orders until we could be able to provide an enough complete and argued report to convince him. If we had not been in situation of demonstrating our good faith, we would simply be removed from its list of suppliers.
No other system of sale presents the same level of safety.
At my opinion it is sad to say that, but in contrast the less safe way today is direct selling, on markets and farms. Of course, I am only speaking here about food safety and only in terms of risk and quality controls.
Of course, it does not mean that farmers who sell in markets or in farm work badly, but it means that if you are used to buy this way your eggs, poultry , fruits and vegetables and so on, ask accreditations and certifications (if it is an organic production or integrated production ), records of checks and health controls. These documents must normally exist and have to be available for consultation. The mere fact of receiving the request of their customers, will force those who are not in the rules, to organize the necessary controls to avoid the risk of losing their customers.
Beware of the concept of food safety. The safest is not necessarily the one you think. This does not negate the qualities and defects of each mode of production and mode of marketing, about which I am preparing several texts.

This publication relates to food safety, not to the quality of the product. I'll come back later and it will be a big chapter. Meanwhile, I invite you, if you understand French language well, to watch the following video, which gives a different perspective, just as respectable and not incompatible, quite the contrary. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that is said, but I think it's interesting to be heard, if only for the humor that is made, although the subject is very serious.

Aucun commentaire:

Enregistrer un commentaire