COVID-19 Accelerates Food Safety Challenges but Collaboration and Technology Offer Hope

06/05/2020

Dr. Abigail Stevenson

Director, Mars Global Food Safety Center

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This year not only ushered in a new decade, but the arrival of COVID-19 and a new era demanding calm leadership and a willingness to work together to seek scientific solutions for a better world.

Since the start of the pandemic, Mars has been doing all we can to help to put the safety and well-being of our Associates first and do our part to slow the spread of the virus. We’ve also been working to support the communities around the world in which we operate, and help protect those who are most vulnerable in this difficult time. 

One of the greatest risks to global health – and one made infinitely more challenging during a pandemic – is hunger due to food insecurity. We believe that industry has a crucial role to play in helping all stakeholders in the global food supply chain identify food safety  risks and find solutions, but we cannot tackle these challenges alone. That’s why we invested in the creation of our Mars Global Food Safety Center in 2015, because we believe in a global systems approach.We've been collaborating for years with our partners to raise the bar in food security—bringing together non-governmental organizations, academia, regulators and industry to share data, critical insights and the latest scientific research and knowledge to increase capability.

It is because of this approach that, as we entered the brave new world required to tackle COVID-19, the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) led by Director Abigail Stevenson, has already begun to address some of the challenges most heavily impacting the food supply chain in 2020. Together with her team of scientists and partners, Dr. Stevenson and the Mars GFSC are working tirelessly to find and develop innovative solutions and technologies that may offer hope for the future of food safety. Here are four areas that demand attention as countries work toward recovery.

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1. Collaboration is key to saving lives

COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented need for collaboration and partnerships to act urgently to protect the supply chain and food systems.

At the Mars GFSC, we are proud to collaborate with more than 25 organizations and academic institutions to share knowledge, generate new insights and help improve the resilience of the global supply chain. 

We work with partners such as the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to share our knowledge and help reach some of the most vulnerable people in the world. We have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects unsafe food can have on vulnerable communities. Developing countries, many already struggling with climate change, economic challenges, famine and conflict, are vulnerable and ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic. That’s why $2 million of the $20 million  Mars has donated to support the people, pets and communities most affected by COVID-19, has been given to aid the WFP in the transport and delivery of critical supplies of emergency food and lifesaving equipment to hospitals as they respond to the pandemic.

World Food Programme

2. Sustainability and innovation should go hand in hand

Around one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—approximately 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted. While this figure is not entirely due to food safety, unsafe food is a significant cause of food waste.  

The Mars GFSC is accelerating the discovery and adoption of new techniques and methods that will enhance food safety globally, helping to reduce food waste and build robust food supply chains.

We are exploring exciting new technologies, such as Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), in partnership with Oxford Nanopore Technologies, and academic experts from Georgia State University and Cornell University to more effectively identify foodborne pathogens that make food unsafe.

WGS is a method used to capture and analyze all the information of the entire genome of an organism in one process. It provides a very precise DNA fingerprint that can help link foodborne pathogen cases to one another, allowing an outbreak to be detected and solved sooner.

This year also sees the Mars GFSC making further progress toward tackling mycotoxins and aflatoxins in particular. These toxic fungi have a devastating effect on human health and are known to contaminate around 25% of the world’s crops.

Through our partnership with The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, Kansas State University, we have helped facilitate a state-of-the-art mycotoxin laboratory in Nepal.  The facility provides a unique opportunity to determine the source of aflatoxin contamination in the Nepali food supply chain, helping scientists and food producers develop better detection and early intervention mechanisms.

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3. Battling food fraud amid COVID-19

The integrity of the food supply chain was already under threat from food adulteration and fraudulent imitations before the onset of the pandemic, and this problem is set to be exacerbated by COVID-19. 

According to the The Consumer Brands Association, food fraud is estimated to cost the global food economy between $10 and $15 billion a year. Work is under way to protect the integrity of raw materials and finished goods, but as the food supply chain becomes ever more complex and food travels faster and farther to the consumer, it’s more important than ever for all stakeholders to collaborate to ensure the integrity of our food chain.

The Mars GFSC is working with global partners to develop a sophisticated genetic “finger-printing” method, which enables food producers and their suppliers to validate the authenticity of certain food materials. A method that ensures the quality of produce across supply chains from production to factory and on to the consumer in real time and without the need to send samples to labs for testing (often many miles away), is a potential game-changer for ensuring food safety and minimizing food waste.

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4. The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today

On a planet that is home to hundreds of millions of hungry people and urgent pressure from population growth, water scarcity and climate change, the need for partnerships and collaborations between public and private stakeholders has never been greater.

Now is the time to raise global awareness about food safety issues and urge action to help some of the 820 million people in the world who do not yet have access to enough food to lead a healthy active life. Join us as we continue to seek a world that delivers safe food for all.