As consumers ask more questions about the safety of what they eat, food producers able to guarantee high quality and safe products will not only lead the market in years to come but pave the way for a sustainable and trusted industry in the future, says general manager at BKB Shift Jaco Maass.

As people become more educated and informed through increased connectivity, the profile of food safety and the origins of products are now top priorities for higher income consumers across the globe.

And if South Africa’s macadamia industry wants to cement a good share of the international market, it is imperative the sector has the right technology in place to guarantee tracing capability.

General Manager at BKB Shift Jaco Maass told delegates attending the annual Africa Agri Tech conference earlier this year in Pretoria that technologies able to assist the agricultural industry to guarantee the traceability of products from farm to plate were integral for allaying consumer fears linked to contaminated, unethically produced or unsafe food.

Maass, who was tasked with transforming the agricultural company to bring it up-to-date with the technology revolution, said in the wool industry, for example, it had become vital for customers to be able to trace the wool in their products back to the farm where it was produced, due to concern over disease outbreaks. He said in some instances customers wanted to be able to see the veterinary certificates for each sheep.

“This kind of technology is relevant to all agricultural sectors – especially those where there have been food safety concerns before. Key market trends suggest food safety and transparency are crucial for continuous supply to markets. People want more information about the food they eat. They want the story behind the food, where it comes from, what chemicals were sprayed on it, and what it ate,” Maass said.

With at least 66% of the world’s population connected to the internet, there was a growing need for more information, he added.

“This is a wake-up call for agricultural businesses. Around 4.2 billion people will be added to the digital economy, wanting to order food with information on how it was produced and where it came from. We need to know how we are going to tackle these demands. How are we going to provide these consumers with the information they need and to guarantee they keep on buying our products?”

Blockchain

Maass said blockchain technology able to pinpoint safety issues in each industry and tied in with biosecurity was becoming increasingly important in the food production sector.

“Blockchain technology means if a whole container of export nuts is stopped because the chemical minimum residue levels (MRLs) are too high, blockchain information can pinpoint the exact pallet and box of nuts in question and trace it back to the farm where the procedures were not followed. This means we can scan a code on a product and find all the information about it. (It means) we won’t have to stop a whole industry’s exports when there is a listeriosis outbreak, for example. This technology enables us to create a protocol of what information is needed for a product based on food safety concerns, MRLs, sustainability, fair trade and environmental practices, and have those certificates submitted and linked to a product through a QR code.”

As customers increasingly start insisting on their right to know where their food comes from, he said, any technologies able to increase food safety and the dissemination of the information around production procedures would improve transparency and connectivity with customers.

Consumer confidence

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), globalisation, urbanisation and changing consumer habits had translated into a longer and increasingly complex global food supply chain. These challenges put greater responsibility on producers and handlers to ensure food safety.

While nuts were previously thought to have a low risk of salmonella and E. coli bacterial contamination due to the dry nature of the product, increasing recalls linked to contaminated nuts has put pressure on processors to implement sterilisation technology. And since both salmonella and E. coli are pathogenic at such low doses, sampling and testing does not always guarantee products remain uncontaminated.

The 2001and 2004 foodborne disease outbreaks caused by salmonella-contaminated almonds in the United States resulted in a requirement that all raw, blanched and roasted almonds be treated to achieve a 4-log reduction in salmonella.

Product recalls have a ripple effect on the whole nut industry: the product is put in a bad light resulting in a drastic reduction in sales. As a result macadamia processors in South Africa have started investing in pasteurisation technology to ensure the country’s crop is safe.

This year, both Global Macadamias and Green Farms Nut Company (GFNC) invested in Napasol pasteurisation technology. With a validated pasteurisation process, Napasol technology is widely accepted as the most credible principal supplier to the macadamia industry around the globe. This is aimed at giving macadamia nut buyers greater confidence in our crop and assurance that the final products will not be recalled because of contamination issues with raw products.

The Napasol process makes certain 100% of the treated product is pasteurised to at least a 5-log level of reduction of pathogens. Efficient microbiological reduction is obtained with dry saturated steam, which is natural, effective, and maintains the raw characteristics of the nut. The batch process, which is validated for at least a 5-log reduction in pathogens for all tree nuts, meets the risk assessment reduction levels published globally. The process also preserves the flavour, colour and texture of the raw kernel.

Compliance with preventative controls and stringent food safety measures are on the rise in current key large export markets and on the horizon for developing export destinations. By acting proactively, the domestic macadamia nut industry is strengthening its position globally as a reputable supplier of safe nuts. This reputation will serve the industry well as supply grows and buyers are in a better position to pick and choose the nuts they buy.

Chairman and owner of the Green Farms Nut Company Jill Whyte said the technology investment would sustain bullish market access for the business and guarantee the best quality product for their customers while at the same time create the opportunity to achieve the best possible prices for farmers.

“This will also buffer our producers from potential knock-on effects of macadamias that do not meet food safety legislation,” she said.

Director of Global Macadamias Roelof van Rooyen emphasised the importance of the technology, saying markets, especially in Europe and the United States, had strict quality standards they expected suppliers to meet.

“Through pasteurisation, we are in a good position to sustainably keep providing these markets with a high quality product the buyer can then pass on to the consumer without fear of product recalls. As a continent, Africa needs to underscore its ability to meet global food safety measures and to confirm our position as the leading supplier of quality nuts if we are to maintain market share. I believe that by using this technology, we can do so.”