Discover more from The Rotten Apple
Issue #21 2022-01-17
Biases in food safety systems, and the future of lab-grown meat
Biases and noise in food safety
Crystal balling… everyone’s doing it this month!
When science does the impossible (for bananas)
American ‘French’ dressing is red?
Food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates from the past week
Welcome to Issue 21 of The Rotten Apple, the second issue of 2022, in which I can’t resist some crystal ball gazing (and smashing!).
Also this week, how cognitive biases can influence food safety outcomes. Plus, plant biologists have made the impossible possible - and might have saved bananas in the process. And this Aussie girls asks, is French-style dressing really red-coloured in America, as the FDA changes the rules about its composition.
As always, this issue ends with a list of food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates from the past week.
Thanks for reading!
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Biases and Noise in Food Safety Investigations and Audits
Humans! We’re messy and irrational. As individuals, we are victims to unconscious biases in our decision-making. Within organisations, our decisions are affected by ‘noise’, which is variation between judgements made by different people.
This week: how cognitive biases impact food safety. Next week: how unexpected ‘noise’ in expert auditing decisions can cause problems for certification companies and their customers.
Cognitive bias is an error or misinterpretation that arises unconsciously in all of us. It can lead us to make poor decisions about food safety, such as not washing our hands properly or leaving food out of the cool-room for too long. Cognitive biases also play a role in how we respond to – or ignore! – the warning signs of an outbreak, and our desire to implement preventive actions. Researchers have identified five cognitive biases that can lead to poor outcomes in food safety.
1 Self-serving Bias
In 2011, hundreds fell ill and 25 people died from Listeria monocytogenes in rockmelon (cantaloupe). It was the deadliest US foodborne outbreak in 26 years. Investigators found the fruit washing equipment at the packing house was filthy and harboured the same strain of L. monocytogenes that caused the deaths.
Scandalously, the packing house had passed a food safety audit just days before the outbreak began, with an excellent score of 96 percent.
Food commentators went nuts! They accused the entire food auditing industry of acting under severe conflicts. They said that auditors are too scared about losing customers to properly identify critical non-conformances.
They were accusing food safety auditors of operating with self-serving biases. A self-serving bias is a conflict between personal interests and professional duties that cause a person to unconsciously make poor decisions that protect their own interests.
Did self-serving bias play a role in the cantaloupe case? The auditor probably didn’t stand to gain anything by awarding the packing house a high audit score. On the other hand, it takes more time and effort to write up non-conformities than to hand in a ‘perfect’ audit report, so perhaps if the auditor was in a hurry, unconscious bias could have crept into the decision-making process.
If you are an auditor, you work hard to make sure your decisions are always objective. Self-serving biases – which aren’t limited to financial gains – are definitely something to be aware of when checking your auditing decisions.
2 Outcome Bias
This bias leads to the classic food safety rookie error “but this type of hazard hasn’t happened before, so we don’t need to implement controls”.
Outcome bias allows us to think that our current food hazard controls have been chosen properly because the results have been okay so far.
To avoid outcome bias, researchers recommend you should evaluate the quality of a decision without considering information that became available after the event. In the case of setting up food safety systems, that means considering all likely scenarios and giving them the same weight as outcomes that you have previously experienced.
3 Status Quo Bias
The status quo bias is a tendency to prefer the current state of affairs. It occurs when people believe that changing the status quo is more dangerous or difficult than keeping things the same, even when this is untrue.
Status quo bias can make farmers and food processors reluctant to adopt new technologies or improve production practices. And it can affect food safety inspections if inspectors are reluctant to search for violations that might exist but have not been observed before.
4 Herding Behaviour
Herding behaviour biases can cause problems when people follow bad practices because they see others doing the same.
In food safety culture development, herding behaviour can also be a force for good. For example, trainers can make use of herding behaviour by helping workers to set good examples for each other. When enough workers are doing the right thing, herding behaviour will encourage everyone to follow procedures correctly.
5 Optimism Bias
Optimism bias is when someone believes they are less likely to experience a negative event than is statistically predicted.
This bias acts more strongly when people think about negative events. For example we are more prone to imagine that we are less likely to experience a negative event than more likely to experience a positive event.
In the context of food businesses that need to judge the likelihood of an outbreak or a recall event, optimism bias can lead them to underestimate the risks.
As messy, imperfect human beings, we can’t avoid cognitive biases: they are part of our subconscious thought processes. However, we can make an effort to be aware of them.
In food safety roles, if we work hard to set up systems so that the default state is optimal, then we can use status quo biases and herding behaviours to maintain those processes at their best. Just don’t forget to check in with yourself and your organisation regularly, and keep an eye out for biases in your decisions.
In short: 🍏 Being aware of cognitive biases makes us better food safety professionals. And humans 🍏
Food Product Development
Crystal Balling for 2022
It’s that time of year again. Food industry commentators have got their crystal balls out and are predicting food trends for 2022. Yawn.
Every January since I can remember, the future-gazers have been making predictions about lab-grown (cell-cultured) meat. While the technology itself is anything but boring, I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s tired of hearing that lab-grown meat is going to revolutionise the food industry.
If consumer sentiment is anything to go by, those predictions are wrong.
“No thanks!” , said 66% of consumers when asked if they would be willing to try lab-grown meat. Of those, 42% said that nothing could persuade them to ever try it.
The stats are from a December 2021 survey of 1,930 British people, who were asked about their willingness to try foods made with novel proteins.
Their main reasons for not wanting to try lab-grown meat:
- The idea is off-putting
- I don’t see a reason to eat it
- I like traditional meat
Upcycling is another prediction that is all over the media this month!
Upcycling is using food waste to create new products and ingredients. Food companies have begun to publicise their upcycling efforts in order to promote their sustainability credentials.
Dole, the massive global fruit company, is one organisation that has recently started talking about its upcycling activities. Dole says it will begin using reject whole fruits plus waste streams like peel, stems and seeds to make specialty food ingredients and materials for other industries, including extracts, fibres, enzymes and oils.
Other upcycling ideas including sustainable prawn crackers made from shrimp waste and plant-based cheesecakes made from discarded ‘ugly’ fruits.
In short: 🍏 Predictions for food trends in 2022 include progress in lab-grown meat and food upcycling 🍏 British consumers are not excited about lab-grown meat 🍏 Upcycling is an increasingly popular way for food companies to promote and engage in sustainable practices 🍏
Sources and more information:
When science does the impossible (is this a new way to save bananas from extinction?)
For years, experts have been predicting the extinction of bananas. Or more specifically, Cavendish banana plants, which are vulnerable to a fungal disease called Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4).
Because Cavendish bananas don’t have seeds, every plant in the world is a genetic clone of the original Cavendish banana. This means that all Cavendishs are equally vulnerable to TR4, which has a very high mortality rate.
It’s happened before
The most popular table banana before Cavendish was the Gros Michel. Experts say it was more tasty and more robust than Cavendish. Gros Michel and Cavendish are half siblings - they share a common parent plant. Gros Michel went (commercially) extinct in the 1960s after crops were destroyed by a different strain of Fusarium Tropical Wilt. Cavendish took over as the table banana of choice because it was resistant to that strain.
The scary thing is that TR4 also affects cooking bananas, including plantains, which are an incredibly important staple food for millions of people in Latin America and Africa.
Researchers have already created a genetically modified (GMO) Cavendish that is resistant to TR4 and performs well in field trials. But because it’s GMO, no one wants to try to get it approved for market.
Other researchers are using CRISPR gene editing to manipulate existing genes in Cavendish DNA so that they mimic the genetic mutations/variations in TR4-resistant bananas.
Another group is using gene editing to switch off the genes that increase Cavendish’s susceptibility to TR4. It’s worth noting, however that gene edited foods don’t have regulatory approval in Europe.
(See Issue #4 of The Rotten Apple for an explanation of gene editing and its food regulatory status.)
Yet another group is doing traditional crossbreeding by looking for banana varieties that have the taste of Cavendish and resistance to TR4. Unfortunately, traditional breeding is a slow process, because most banana plants that are resistant to TR4 have inedible fruits and because banana breeding cycles are long.
Good news! Scientists have done the (almost) impossible and might have given us another way to save the banana: monocot plant grafts.
Monocot plant grafts are impossible. At least they were. Until recently, scientists thought it was not possible to perform grafts with plants that are monocotyledons because monocotyledons (monocots) don’t have a type of tissue called vascular cambium. That tissue is present in dicotyledon plants like apple and pear trees, and is the tissue that allows plant grafts to fuse and heal.
Grasses like oats, wheat, barley, rice as well as other important food plants like banana plants, corn (maize) and date palms are monocots.
Now scientists have found a way to successfully graft monocots, which could mean we will be eating Cavendish bananas for years to come. The graft could be used to attach the fruiting part of a Cavendish or plantain to root stock that is resistant to TR4.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s science at its best, where you find something out even though everyone says it’s not possible, and he proved me wrong.” Julian Hibberd at the University of Cambridge, speaking about his colleague, Greg Reeves, who found an approach that allows monocots to be grafted.
How good is science?!
In short: 🍏 Cavendish and some cooking bananas are in trouble from a fungal disease 🍏 Scientists have managed to perform successful plant grafts on monocotyledon plants 🍏 The revolutionary grafting technique could help save the Cavendish banana and plantains from possible extinction 🍏
American French dressing and the US FDA
Since the 1950s there has been a legal definition of French dressing in the USA, regulated by the federal government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
When I think of French style dressing, I think of a pale-coloured vinaigrette with salt, pepper and a little oil.
In America, French dressing is apparently reddish-orange in colour with a sweet taste. (?! Sounds awful!) The current FDA rules say it has to contain at least 35 percent vegetable oil and an acidic liquid such as vinegar or lemon juice.
The regulations are said to be causing problems for companies that want to sell low-fat versions of French-style dressing. Most other dressings are not bound by rules that standardise their composition.
Now, the FDA has dropped the rules for French dressing. The industry group Association for Dressings and Sauces, which petitioned for the rules to be lifted in 1998, must be celebrating their (20 plus years) victory.
The FDA said the changes are “part of our comprehensive effort to modernize food standards to reduce regulatory burden and barriers to innovation”.
It might have been a long time coming, but it’s nevertheless a win against red tape. I wonder what’s next?
In short: 🍏 The US FDA has removed a compositional rule for French (style) dressing 🍏 The FDA says it is reducing regulatory burden and barriers to innovation 🍏
Food Fraud Incidents and Horizon Scanning
Food fraud incidents added to Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week
Aluminum foil food wrap has been seized by officers from the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for violating quality standards - India
Doner kebab meat and ‘lamb’ kebab meat has been tested by authorities. Twelve of the fourteen kebabs were found to contain meat species in addition to lamb (chicken, turkey, beef). All contained milk protein and ten of the fourteen outlets wrongly told a consumer who said they had a milk allergy it would be okay to eat the doner – United Kingdom
Ham shoulders that were falsely labelled as Iberian have been seized. The hams were “not what they claimed to be” and some were not fit for human consumption. The accused fraudsters allegedly falsified documents to reclassify the hams as accredited to the Iberian standard. Hams that had been returned to the seller for quality breaches were resold to other customers - Spain
Food fraud horizon scanning (other updates to the Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week)
Researchers have reported that the poultry industry sometimes illegally treats food animals with antiviral drugs for influenza. However, a survey of 120 commercial poultry samples purchased in Ireland found that all were free from residues of 15 antiviral drugs, including for influenza and herpes.
See you next week!
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