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World Food Safety Day: ESR-led system detects emerging food safety risks

07 June 2024

Food and export testing
Esr Food Safety Testing
Esr Food Safety Testing

Friday 7 June is World Food Safety Day, and to mark this occasion we're sharing some things you might not know about the role ESR plays in food safety science.

Connection and collaboration are key to success in science, especially when looking for signs of emerging food safety risks. Back in 2021, a small team of food safety experts, led by Science Leader Nicola (Nikki) King, established ERIS: the Emerging Risk Identification System. As its name suggests, ERIS is focussed on detecting signals to indicate there might be new microbiological or chemical hazards that need our attention.

The ERIS team identifies emerging risks by combing the scientific literature, newsletters, and other sources of intelligence for signals of a change that could potentially cause poor health. They also connect regularly with others involved in emerging risk activities. ERIS is funded by nine food industry organisations, who actively participate in discussing the risks and highlighting threats to the team. Brought to life through the New Zealand Food Safety Science and Research Centre, the ERIS system is focussed on identifying where scientific research is needed to understand, avoid or mitigate emerging risks.

New hazards can emerge with changes in our diet, population, or environment. A notable example of how just a small piece of seemingly disparate intelligence can have implications for food safety happened recently when Nikki was reading an alert about an incursion of African land snails in Florida, which mentioned these snails carry a parasite. After looking into it further, Nikki found that the parasite these snails carry had caused illness in people through food, and the parasite had moved into mainland Europe.

Nikki brought this finding to the attention of the European Food Safety Authority, so they could do further research on this risk – rapidly working at anything but a ‘snail’s pace’! ERIS intelligence helps food organisations to update their own risk registers, evaluate their farm-to-fork supply chains, respond to customer queries, and keep abreast of new issues.

ESR experts help keep your food safer through science

While you’ve probably heard how ESR experts have provided key insights about COVID-19 from a public health perspective, what you might not know is that ESR also had to provide crucial expertise about whether the virus could be transmitted via food.

One outstanding question back in February 2020 when COVID-19 was emerging was whether the virus could be transmitted through food or food packaging, and if so, what precautions the food industry could be taking to prevent transmission.  ESR Senior Scientist Dr Joanne Kingsbury and Dr Rob Lake prepared a report about the potential for COVID-19 foodborne transmission.

Early on, there were little to no studies about the virus that causes COVID-19, but Joanne and Rob drew on what was known about similar viruses to predict how the coronavirus might survive on food and food packaging. This initial report, released on 16 March 2020, concluded that there was no evidence that COVID-19 could be spread by food or food packaging, and that there was a much bigger risk of respiratory transmission.

The report provided essential information at the early stages of COVID-19 pandemic, and the report was updated over time as more research on COVID-19 was conducted, but this evolving information didn’t change the overall conclusion: that the risk of foodborne transmission was very low. This work helped keep Aotearoa’s food industry abreast of the emerging situation as the pandemic progressed, and supported the export industry.

Whole genome sequencing methods enhance safety in the food industry

What sets ESR apart in everything we do is our drive to incorporate the latest techniques, like whole genome sequencing (WGS). During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, WGS became synonymous as a way to better understand the virus, but it is also crucial in other areas of our science – including food safety.

WGS helps support food safety activities within food production, often used to determine the genetic makeup of foodborne pathogens and offering unprecedented insights about potential sources of contamination in food production chains. ESR is a key provider of WGS to the food industry, with Senior Scientist Lucia Rivas leading several commercially sensitive research projects incorporating this technique.

One example which we can share is where WGS research allowed one producer to pinpoint contamination of a serious human pathogen to a specific piece of equipment used in the manufacturing process. Based on this finding, the processor was able to simply isolate and remove the equipment from production, saving $100,000 in costs associated with an entire plant closure and substantial testing.  At ESR we combine cutting edge technology with world-class expertise to achieve outcomes that not only protect communities from ill health, but also help save the food industry financially.

Find out more about World Food Safety Day.