Opinion: Thinking about food safety before we get sick

Friday 7 June 2024

By Professor Steve Flint

Professor Steve Flint.

Last updated: Monday 17 June 2024

Food safety is something the average person does not think too much about, until they become sick or hear of incidents like rats and mice in supermarkets. Thankfully, food manufacturers and food distributors all have risk management plans, a requirement of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). These are designed to avoid food contamination incidents.

Aotearoa New Zealand has an enviable international reputation for the safety of food. This is important as our economy is based on providing food to the world. A government funded agency, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) collate and publish the annual statistics on food safety. The most recent published figures from 2022 show stable or declining number of illnesses for most of the microbial pathogens (bacteria or viruses that cause disease), based on reports from doctors (GPs) or hospital admissions.

These represent a proportion of the real number of cases in the community, because most cases result in short term illness where a visit to the doctor is not required. Many food safety issues are believed to be due to poor hygiene in the preparation of food at home, where education and awareness play a key role in prevention.

Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University supports key research into national and international food safety improvement. A good example is the research on campylobacter by Distinguished Professor Nigel French and his team. This research uncovered information that led to a national reduction in the incidence of food poisoning due to this bacterium by more than 50 per cent.

Changes in population demographics and climate change will require researchers to identify new challenges. Vibrio parahaemolyticus food poisonings are increasing, and this is believed to be due to warmer sea waters resulting in contamination of seafood.

The Food Microbiology Biofilm research team at Massey University, in conjunction with Plant and Food Research, aim to learn more about this pathogen so we can find smart solutions to prevent food poisonings.

Professor Steve Flint is a lead researcher in food safety and microbiology at Massey University. He is a certified microbiologist, with a specialist interest in biofilms, sanitation, rapid detection of food safety issues and food spoilage.

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