Even amid a wave of environmental protection reforms, pollution remains an ongoing problem in the U.S. In 2022 alone, 66 million tons of pollution were emitted into the air. According to the EPA’s most recent water quality survey, almost 50% of U.S. rivers and streams, as well as one-third of lakes, are too polluted to drink from, let alone swim in or fish from.
The impact of pollution on our environment is often visible as smog in the air and sludge in water. However, pollution can also have an impact on food quality and overall food safety. Here’s how pollution puts the food supply at risk — as well as a look at what the food and beverage industry is already doing to protect food safety.
Why Pollution Might Undermine Food Safety
Whether air, water, or some other form of pollution, the introduction of toxic substances to the environment can have major implications for food safety. Some of the top ways pollution infiltrates the food supply are:
- Contaminated soil and water. When farmers grow crops in polluted soil or with contaminated water, the raw commodities can pass on contaminants to consumers. Unfortunately, pollution can persist in ingredients even after heavy processing from manufacturers and eventually be ingested by consumers. Using pesticides and herbicides irresponsibly can also result in contamination that impacts consumer health — so it’s important to use them judiciously.
- Bioaccumulation. Pollution contaminants, especially “forever chemicals,” can build up in food chains over time and eventually reach dangerous levels. As toxins make their way up the food chain in higher and higher concentrations, they can eventually compromise human health when fish, seafood, and other products are served to consumers.
- Antibiotics resistance. One of the biggest chemical categories in polluted water is actually pharmaceutical waste, including antibiotics that haven’t been properly disposed of. Due to the low dosage and infrequent exposure, bacteria like E. coli that are common in foodborne illnesses can become resistant to antibiotics over time, making them more difficult to treat when people become infected.
Food Safety Pollution: The Protections Already In Place
Fortunately, many regulations and food safety practices already mitigate some of the systemic risks pollution creates for the food supply. Here’s what the food and beverage industry is doing to protect the food supply (and what your facility can do to help):
- FDA monitoring. In recent years, the FDA has taken more precautions to protect consumers from heavy metal exposure in their food. Toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium occur naturally in the environment, but are even more concentrated in areas contaminated by industrial pollution. The FDA has taken steps to minimize consumer exposure to these naturally occurring substances, inadvertently reducing the risks posed by pollution. By ensuring your facility stays up to date and compliant with the latest FDA regulations, your facility can reduce these risks as well.
- Pesticide restrictions. In addition to monitoring for chemical contaminants, the FDA and EPA also set tolerance limits on the amount of pesticide residue allowed on different types of food products. Growers must now be more judicious in how much pesticide they use on their crops, making sure to follow application directions and wait the designated amount of time before harvesting the treated produce. This limits consumer exposure to some of the same harmful chemicals that accumulate in food from pollution. Manufacturers can support this by screening ingredients for residue and/or implementing additional washing steps to ensure its removal. They can also reduce risk of poison exposure and environmental contamination by only using toxic rodent bait as pest control when necessary.
- Supply chain controls and supplier verifications. A major issue with pollution is that it can contaminate agricultural products right at the source in the field. Traceability documentation, risk assessment management, and regular performance reviews with manufacturers’ suppliers can prevent contaminated ingredients from reaching their facilities and stop them from entering the food supply. As more research is published about the impact of pollution on food safety, the industry will update these protocols to screen for more contaminants. Manufacturers should continuously audit their suppliers and vendors to ensure they’re meeting current standards.
Getting Support for Food Safety Pollution
Pollution is a systemic issue that has the potential to impact every industry. Fortunately for consumers and food industry stakeholders, many of the food safety protocols already practiced by growers, manufacturers, and other organizations throughout the food supply chain are working toward solutions to mitigate the impact that pollution has on food safety. As governments around the world enact more regulations to protect the environment and limit possible contaminants, the food and beverage industry will face even fewer burdens.
AIB International can help manufacturers identify and overcome any type of food safety challenge. Want an expert on-site and ready to help? Learn more about our Assign an Expert service to bring a valuable problem-solver aboard your team. You can also sign up for our newsletter for updates about food safety regulations.