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How Climate Change Could Threaten Food Safety: What You Need to Know


Staff member
Mar 19, 2024
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The planet is warming, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe. Across the globe, changes in climate are placing enormous pressures on entire ecosystems. Years-long droughts, severe rains and flooding, and frequent wildfires are among the increasingly disruptive weather events that are having cascading effects on perhaps the most essential ecosystem for humans—the food ecosystem.

While cyclical weather events such as El Niño and La Niña play a vital role in shifting weather patterns and events, it’s the long-term trend in climate changes wrought by human activity that most experts believe, and science supports, exacerbate these cyclical patterns to a degree by which the health of ecosystems cannot be maintained or, if unimpeded, reversed. From depleting the soil of nutrients to interfering with the proper storage of foods for human consumption, climate change holds the potential to disrupt all aspects of the food chain. Ensuring food safety in this climate is an ever-growing concern.

For food producers and processors already tasked with the continuous, difficult mandate to ensure the safety of their food products, the task may feel Sisyphean amid new and uncertain challenges all along the food chain caused by the warming planet. “Predicting the most significant impacts of climate change on food safety is challenging given the dynamic nature of climate change,” says Sara Bratager, senior food safety and traceability scientist at the Institute of Food Technologies (IFT). Rather than one dominant impact of climate change on food safety, she thinks it more likely that there will be a collection of emerging risks whose impacts will vary regionally.

For Bratager, the problem presented by climate change to food safety is one that carries opportunity. “Climate change is encouraging us to think differently and more comprehensively about food safety practices,” she says.

Brenda Zai, a PhD candidate in the department of population medicine at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, put a stronger note on a similar message. “It is not necessarily the impacts of climate change on food safety risks that are the major concern; it is how solutions and resources are developed,” she said.

She’d like to see more of a focus on mitigating and adapting to climate change rather than the current focus on preventing it. “Ultimately, climate change impacts are inevitable; therefore, a shift in mindset is central to adapting to these impacts to lessen their burden,” she says. Without this shift, she thinks “the agri-food industry and public health will continue to be vulnerable to climate-sensitive food safety risks.”

Focusing on climate change as a catalyst for improving food safety solutions, there remain several big questions. What are the effects of climate change on food safety that can spur more comprehensive food safety practices? How can food producers and processors position themselves to best handle these effects and strengthen their food safety protocols?

Risks to Food Safety​

Rising temperatures across the globe, with 2023 as the hottest year on record according to a 2024 report from the World Meteorological Organization, are exacerbating a range of food safety concerns. Water and crop contamination are major concerns, as detailed in a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Climate Change: Unpacking the Burden on Food Safety.” From worsening algae blooms along coastlines and lakes that harm marine plants and animals, to higher incidences of foodborne pathogens caused by heavy precipitation events and flooding, to increases in and expanded geographical areas with mycotoxin contamination in staple crops, the incremental but impactful heating up of the earth’s water and land is presenting new challenges to keeping food safe all along the food chain.

And the risks are spreading globally. “Some of the greatest food safety risks caused by climate lie in the emergence of previously not regionally known threats,” says Markus Lipp, PhD, senior food safety officer, Agrifood Systems and Food Safety Division, FAO, Rome.

Dr. Lipp points to many regions of the world, for example, that have not previously been affected by food safety risks related to mycotoxins in various crops or marine biotoxins in seafood. Unlike the many tropical countries for whom these risks are well known and who have learned to manage these risks, Dr. Lipp says these newer regions of the world have less practice and know-how on how to manage such food safety risks. “This is a particular concern as the rate of climate change is rather fast and results therefore in an immediate concern,” he says.

Bratager also underscores the particular threat of mycotoxin contamination of crops in non-tropical areas, in which warming temperatures and extreme weather events such as drought and flood are creating ideal conditions for certain mycotoxins to proliferate. She cited the rise in aflatoxin contamination in maize in South and Central Europe over the past decade, particularly in Italy, Serbia, and Hungary. “This shift highlights the expanding geographical range of food safety risks driven by climate change,” she adds.

The risks to food safety go well beyond the pre-harvest stage. Other, less direct effects of climate change include disruptions in food processing and production as well as consumption. Extreme weather events can “disrupt food safety processes and interfere with protocols related to food processing, transport, and storage,” says Elena N. Naumova, PhD, a professor in the nutrition epidemiology and data science division at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. Power outages caused by extreme weather, for example, can impair refrigeration of perishable products of high nutritional value such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs across the food supply chain, from production and distribution sites to retail stores to consumers’ homes. Microbial, physical, and chemical spoilage of foods will incur high costs for food producers and processors, including more food recalls. “The environmental and climate changes may be incremental, but the overall effects, both direct and indirect, are likely to be substantial enough to trigger foodborne outbreaks,” says Dr. Naumova.

Collaboration Needed to Mitigate Risk​

Although climate-sensitive food safety risks are garnering more research attention, Zai notes that significant knowledge gaps remain. “Consequently, mitigation and adaptation strategies are under-developed and require further efforts and resources,” she says.

She cautioned against tunnel vision in addressing the impacts of climate change on food safety and instead emphasized a collaborative approach among experts across multiple disciplines (agri-food, public health, climate science, and policymaking) to provide holistic solutions akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s One Health framework approach.

What this means in practice is taking a stronger, proactive approach to mitigating food safety risks. For food producers, this may mean increasing current efforts to introduce new methods to adapt to the increased risk of crop contamination. Zai pointed to several methods that could be employed: integration of climate-resilient crop varieties that are able to withstand extreme weather conditions, and plant pathogens that can pose a risk to consumers after harvesting, diligent water management and testing to prevent waterborne pathogens from contaminating crops, and pest management.

For governments, public health, and policymakers, it means undertaking more data and research-driven activities such as developing reliable surveillance systems that integrate climate data and environmental sampling data to project the likelihood of contamination through modeling methods, which could also be applied to developing early warning systems, according to Zai.

Essential for strong collaboration among all stakeholders is a willingness to share knowledge and best practices. For example, regions newly experiencing mycotoxin risks can learn from tropical areas with long-standing experience managing these contaminants, says Bratager. “Data sharing is equally important,” she said. “It enhances our ability to predict and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks by improving the identification of food safety risks and enabling more targeted mitigation strategies.”

For experts who use data analytical tools to track food-borne outbreaks, access to data that is more streamlined across agencies is critical but difficult. Dr. Naumova, who is an expert in developing analytical tools for spatio-temporal and longitudinal data analysis applied to disease surveillance, emphasized the severe fragmentation of data across various agencies that makes it difficult to get the needed precise data on where, when, and how food contamination and exposure to pathogens occur, spread, and manifest. “Our task is to assemble all records into an analyzable form, considering the potential delayed or cascading effects of extreme weather events and health responses,” she says. “This data preparation and sophisticated analysis is a tedious, time-consuming process requiring internal checks and controls and proper expertise.”

According to Dr. Naumova, developing a tool that can mitigate the food safety risks caused by climate change requires an investment in dollars, time, and commitment that would have an impact akin to creating a national infrastructure. “We need integrated early warning systems to mitigate the risks,” she said. These would include assessing the potential for an extreme weather event at a given time and location; assessing the extent of food safety risks, including population vulnerability; providing projections for health officials and relevant stakeholders for different stages of risk (anticipation, alert, and alarm); developing, testing, and providing tailored mitigation strategies and monitoring their implementation; and assessing the aftermath and adjusting for further preparedness and learning.

Dr. Naumova emphasizes the need to keep the focus on targeted mitigation strategies. “The effects of climate change are global, but the solutions have to be local and well-tailored to local needs and challenges,” she says.

Thinking Globally and Acting Locally in an Uncertain Climate​

One key challenge when talking about food safety risks linked to climate change is the unpredictability and variability of the effects of climate change at any given time in any given place. New thinking and new tools can help transition to acting more proactively to mitigate risks to food safety under the uncertainties of climate trends.

New thinking may mean a shift to a more proactive way of thinking about food safety issues affected by the changing climate. The FAO advocates integrating what it calls a structured foresight system to get people thinking about what climate-related scenarios could occur in the medium-to-long term that could impact food safety. In its 2022 report, “Thinking About the Future of Food Safety: A Foresight Report,” the FAO describes foresight as a structured futures-thinking approach involving multidisciplinary collaboration aimed at understanding trends and uncertainties and guiding decision-making processes towards achieving desired goals. Such proactive thinking goes beyond the traditional early warning food safety systems that are aimed at rapid response to outbreaks or seasonal or annual climate conditions predictive of food safety risks.

“When we are prepared, when we have the foresight to understand how the world and its climate will change and what the consequences for food safety are, we can avoid disruption,” says Dr. Lipp. Acknowledging that this mindset will not work for everything, he thinks it will work for a great many things and allow for a planned approach to deal with unforeseen events. “Without foresight, too many issues turn into an emergency that will overwhelm our systems,” he adds.

New tools, especially at the local level, can help foresee and anticipate regional and local climate trends. A new tool recently launched by the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership (MCAP) is one such tool. Called MN CliMAT, the interactive online tool offers highly localized climate projections for Minnesota by providing detailed information on future climate variabilities.

Katie Black, an extension educator focusing on climate resilience and adaptation at MCAP, says the tool fills a needed gap in providing highly localized climate information. “Many reports discuss the expected changes to our climate across the globe, but to make decisions at the regional, city, or farm scale, we need information at that same scale,” she adds. “MN CliMAT’s data are more relevant and useful for the many climate change adaptation efforts happening within the state.”

For food producers, processors, and manufacturers, the tool can be used to create plans for what areas of their operations are expected to be most at risk from the changing climate, she said. For farmers, the tool can be used to help rethink where to grow crops based on models showing, for example, expected increases in big rainstorms or average spring precipitation in their local area. For larger-scale food processors or manufacturers, the tool can help prioritize infrastructure and investment based on expected temperature, humidity, and precipitation over the next 15, 20, and 50 years across the various counties in Minnesota.

Black and her colleagues see the tool as part of a suite of tools that will generate more interest from food industry stakeholders in steps they can take to begin creating or advancing an adaptation plan to meet the changes in climate. “We also hope that more awareness of our tool across the country will help to demonstrate the need for other states to have access to downscaled climate data for climate planning,” she says.

The post How Climate Change Could Threaten Food Safety: What You Need to Know appeared first on Food Quality & Safety.
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