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Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Aral Sea Kind of Disaster and the Food Industry

Far-reaching Effects of Elaborate Irrigation Frenzy

The food safety, food defense and food security management business has grown into a busy big money-making business with claims of huge virtual success but very little impact on the intended goal: The production of sufficient and readily available food that is actually safer, efficiently distributed and more affordable everywhere, for everyone.

The food industry needs to learn from the Aral Sea disaster. Elaborate and complex systems are not automatically useful. The idea of "comprehensive" can be good but it can also be bad where it only confuses and entangles.

An Important "Before and After" Question
Ask yourself this: What actual product safety and quality improvement gains (not gains in fanciful documentation) have you made that convince you to continue with what you are currently doing in your food safety management and assessment? Did you or do you actually do any before and after comparison to show how the safety and quality of your products have improved and stayed improved with real, measurable and verifiable data in your operation?

An elaborate and supposedly comprehensive irrigation frenzy was once thought to be essential for the life of the Aral Sea region. In the same way, some of the highly commercialized and elaborate food safety management and assessment systems are thought to be essential for the life of the food industry today. Many claim success on the basis of imagined or assumed progress while, with the presumed control systems in place, inexplicable scope of product failures have occurred and continue to do so.

Some people in the industry assume that greater complexity  equates to advanced programs. A closer look reveals that many suggested  programs intended to solve the problems faced by the industry become complex because the parties or agencies setting them up are actually confused about the direction to take with the intended purpose. So, assuming that if done by a committee it is automatically wise, they strike committees to simply introduce sporadic thoughts  that come to mind as new rules. These rules are often introduced with mostly unfounded arguments instead of prudent (and preferably scientific) validation exercises to confirm the relevance of the suggested rules. Sometimes it is simply argued that it is "what the industry wants or likes" which is often contrary to what the industry actually needs. Whereas a better argument for rules should be what the industry needs but may not like.  

With very little attention paid to the needs “downstream”, the drying up of the food safety assurance sea, in terms of its effectiveness, will get increasingly visible. Signs of this drying up are already becoming obvious if you take a look at the unrelenting waves of recalls – Recall Notices from Selected Countries.

Dangerous Knee-jerk Solutions

Resorting to knee-jerk solutions may end up doing to the food industry what the increased use of pesticides did to the Aral Sea region. Some of the solutions proposed and pursued do not involve the use of pesticides but they are nonetheless toxic. These solutions include: Simplified (compromised) audit standards for small operators, mandatory unannounced audits, punitive regulatory enforcement, excessive emphasis on “compliance” instead of genuine commitment, seminars and webinars that are more money-making than solution-providing, et cetera. 

Enchanted and captivated by the fast spinning wheel of knee-jerk solutions, many do not find it easy to get off. 

Other profit and greed-driven solutions actually involve the uncontrolled use of pesticides in agricultural operations. In fact, more than pesticides are used. The indiscriminate use of growth hormones and antibiotics by farmers is well chronicled. This has resulted in incidences of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens causing food-borne illness outbreaks. The World Health Organization cites, among other contributors, the "inappropriate use of antimicrobial medicines, including in animal husbandry".
Anticipated realities downstream are looking more and more horrific because of the current practices (including fraudulent practices) in the food industry. A similar kind of dangerous, debilitating and irreversible pesticide contamination that destroyed the Aral Sea region is very likely to occur in the food industry due to the use of knee-jerk solutions and profit-making schemes.

Grounded Ships
Many proposed food safety management and assessment systems are also like gigantic food safety ships. They will become grounded because of the inherent elitism, redundant impositions, inefficiencies and ineffectiveness, the ever-growing paper-work demand, etc. Many people may continue to admire the grandeur and board these ships but they are most likely to end up going nowhere.

Instead of mandating wasteful schemes and projects that worsen the situation, the industry needs to find real and truly revolutionary solutions that address the real root-causes of failure. Some of these causes are identified in the following posts:

2. 10 Reasons for Quality Initiatives Failure

Other posts that may also be of interest:

Read the Aral Sea story posted by the Riverina Environmental Education Centre -

The full article by Phillip Whish-Wilson, Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health 1(2): 29-34 (2002)

Posted By Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is the current Food Sector Chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection

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