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20.10.2022: The World Health Organization (WHO) sees a close link between food safety, nutrition and food security, as unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition that .particularly affects infants and young children, pregnant women, elderly, the immunocompromised and the sick. FoodSafeR, a new project recently launched by the Austrian Competence Centre for Feed and Food Quality, Safety and Innovation (FFoQSI) at Vetmeduni, aims to make a substantial contribution to building a safer food system.

A stable food supply not only contributes to food safety and food security but also has many social implications; it influences access to educational opportunities, supports the national economy and tourism, and so promotes the sustainable development of many economies (see UN Sustainable Development Goals). Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the current situation in Ukraine show how vulnerable the food system is to disruptions.

Risk management and risk information must become future-proof

Animal diseases, zoonoses and extreme weather events in Europe have put the spotlight on the fundamental vulnerability of our global food systems. In Europe, foodborne hazards, including bacteria, parasites, toxins (chemical hazards) and allergens are responsible for around 23 million cases of illness and 5,000 deaths every year. These systemic challenges are likely to become considerably more acute in the near future due to the impact of climate change, the shift of our food system towards a more plant-based diet and the need for a circular economy.

Well-funded, multi-actor research project

The complexity of factors leading to foodborne hazards requires better information-sharing across the (international) food system as well as the use of novel technologies, including big data processing, to facilitate evidence-based, future-proof, data-driven food management by the parties involved. These challenges are now being addressed by the recently launched €6 million FoodSafeRproject led by Martin Wagner from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni) and Rudolf Krska from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). Both professors are active in the Austrian Competence Centre for Feed and Food Quality, Safety and Innovation (FFoQSI), a collaborative research centre with more than 60 employees dedicated to integrated food research that is funded by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) and by the state governments of Upper Austria, Lower Austria and Vienna. The University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni) is a consortium partner together with the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) and the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria (FH Oberösterreich).

“The management and information systems for food safety that have been established over the past few decades in Europe’s agricultural sector, in food businesses, and in national and European administrations, must now be made more robust to withstand the pressures acting on our global food systems. These considerations lead to the need for proactive risk management capable of future-proofing the European Union’s food system,” says Martin Wagner, the academic director of FFoQSI.

“The focus of our research project is to identify new data and to communicate established facts on emerging food safety risks, as called for in the EU’s recently published Horizon Europe research programme,” Wagner continues. The multi-actor FoodSafeR consortium brings together 18 consortium partners from research and industry along with food business operators, technology SMEs, government agencies and civil society organisations in a “joined-up approach” to develop future-proof tools based on cutting-edge scientific evidence and organised within a series of case studies on selected (emerging) food risks. “End users and stakeholders are heavily involved to enable the testing with users, as the project combines a holistic perspective with innovative analytics, big data and machine learning approaches in a groundbreaking multi-criteria decision-making process,” as Martin Wagner explains. This enormous reach is ensured through the close cooperation with a unique international advisory board covering the global dimension of the food system from Asia to Africa to the United States.

The Food System

The figureprovides an overview of how FoodSafeR links integrated approaches to identifying, assessing and managing food safety hazards and risks in order to develop a unique set of forward-looking frameworks, tools, methods, strategies, models, guidelines and training materials. The information tool (digital hub) that is to be developed aims to become a one-stop shop for risk managers, risk assessors, business managers, quality managers, food safety authorities and relevant stakeholders operating in the European food system to promote proactive, evidence-based information-building for targeted risk management strategies.