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Why food safety isn't just about food

Posted on 08/03/2018

Dr Gavin Milligan of the William Jackson Food Group tells us about how to achieve a safe and efficient supply chain.

By Katharine Rooney

Of all the goods that ultimately reach consumers, one that we can’t manage without is food – and yet, with an international supply chain involved in much of what we now eat, getting consumables from farm to fork in one piece can be a challenging process.

“A safe and efficient supply chain is about the safety of people within the system, the intrinsic safety of the food itself and safety for consumers,” said Dr Gavin Milligan, ESG Director at the William Jackson Food Group, who spoke yesterday at our Food Industry Innovation 2018 event in Manchester.

Milligan was one of a number of guest presenters at the event, which focused on enhanced food quality – not only around consumer concerns about sugar, salt, and fat content and hygiene in health, but about the integrity of food products which are subject to inherent supply chain risks, such as criminal behaviour and extreme weather conditions.

The former, at least, is something the UK Government has been trying to tackle, both through the Modern Slavery Act and by establishing a National Food Crime Prevention Framework.

“There is quite a lot of work that has been done since the Modern Slavery Act in the UK,” said Milligan, “which is having an impact in overseas territories as well – it obliges companies above a certain size to say what they do in their supply chains.”

After horsemeat was found in beef sold in UK supermarkets in 2013, the Government commissioned the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks. Its author, Professor Chris Elliott, “has gone beyond food safety,” said Milligan, “and he now talks about food integrity

“The six characteristics that he has identified that define food integrity are: is it in itself safe and authentic – for example it’s not ordinary honey that’s being passed off as manuka honey – it’s meaningful in your diet, so it’s nutritious; it can continue to be supplied, so it’s sustainable; it is produced ethically, and it is respectful both of the people who work in the food system and of the environment that the food system sits within.

“So that’s taking a step further, to go beyond the question of ‘is this stuff directly harmful to me in some way ?’ which is kind of where it all started, to ‘is the system collectively working properly?’”

It was industry concern that the system was not working – based on challenges not just in the food industry but in the garment trade – that led to companies setting up high-profile sustainability schemes. Milligan was instrumental in establishing up the “We Will” programme at William Jackson, which has a diverse portfolio ranging from frozen food favourite Aunt Bessie’s to organic delivery service Abel & Cole.

We Will has a particular focus on supporting smaller companies in supply chains. “The challenge for SMEs is around resource and capacity,” said Milligan. “They may well need to rely on external assistance. That can come from their customers or other parts of the supply chain of which they are part. That’s the approach that we have taken. If you look at We Will, you’ll see that by 2020, we’ll put in best practice workshops around our smaller suppliers. That’s about helping them understand where they should be looking and some of the actions that they could be taking.”

How innovation can help manage risk

Because of the global nature of food supply chains, extreme weather continues to be a significant potential threat. One of the ways organisations can help manage this, said Milligan, is to try to spread their risks geographically: “you maybe try to buy from different parts of the world, so you’re not going to be 100% exposed in one place – you might only be exposed in part of what you do. People are looking at using different types of crops that are more drought resistant or more salt resistant. So there are choices of crop types. There’s reformulation of product, to an extent, so there could be a reduced proportion of vulnerable items and a larger proportion of safer items.”

Closer to home, further innovation may well be needed within the UK supply chain once we leave the European Union. “There will inevitably be changes in the UK’s agri-food system,” said Milligan. “A great deal of what is consumed in the UK is imported from within the EU.”

But while there remain uncertainties, technology is helping to meet some of the challenges: “There are people already working on urban vertical farming, for instance. There are people working on insect protein. There are people working on improved strains of crops. There’s lots of stuff happening.”

Ultimately, Milligan said, within any supply chain, resilience and sustainability are key: “You need to look at the barriers to success and then take appropriate action around them.”

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Simon Baty
Knowledge Transfer Manager, AgriFood