“Food safety is vital at Nestlé,” says Jean-Luc De Vuyst, Head of Technical for Nestlé in the Central and West
“As the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company, we aim to ensure that our food and beverages are as safe as possible for our consumers, at all stages of our supply chain.
“People may not realise the rigorous controls and checks that products go through before they are safe to buy and consume. But whether we produce simple or sophisticated products – our challenge is still the same when it comes to food safety,” he adds.
Food safety includes ways and actions to handle, prepare and store food to prevent contamination and food borne illnesses.
Food borne infections are often caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances that can enter people’s bodies through contaminated food or water.
Food borne and waterborne infections or diseases kill about two million people globally each year, according to the World Health Organization. In developing countries, the risk of infection is higher.
Food safety hazards are worryingly more common than people think.
Food borne infections are often due to the lack of simple hygiene when preparing or cooking raw food.
But it’s not the raw food itself that causes people to fall ill, explains Jean-Luc. For example, when people prepare raw meat, they may forget to wash their hands after and touch other kitchen surfaces and prepare other food without realising it. This cross-contamination is the main culprit for infection, he adds.
Food borne bacteria or pathogens like salmonella or listeria often affect vulnerable people such as children, pregnant women and the elderly.
The industry’s approach to this type of food hazard – which can be found at the production, processing, distribution, retail and preparation level – has moved from looking at issues in finished products, to trying to identify them as early as possible in the supply chain. Nestlé is doing the same.
Farm to fork
“We believe our company, and the industry as a whole, has a responsibility to tackle the prevalence of foodborne infections,” says Jean-Luc.
“At Nestlé we aim to know if there is a problem at any stage in our production, where it is coming from, understand how to address it and how we can prevent it.”
Nestlé’s factories globally, including those in Central and West Africa, have dedicated zones, equipment and utensils for different ingredients to prevent cross-contamination. They follow certified cleaning and sanitation practices at every step of production, and employees are trained to adhere to good manufacturing practices.
Nestlé worldwide also uses advanced technology to test for harmful microorganisms or substances, carrying out 100 million tests annually on its products – including 1.5 million for salmonella.
At the company’s research centre in Switzerland, Nestlé opened new laboratories in 2013 to study food borne pathogens.
The labs have a high level of ‘bio-containment’, where certain areas are sealed with restricted access to trained personnel who wear protective clothing and follow strict hygiene procedures. Nestlé uses sophisticated scientific techniques to refine the processes it uses to eliminate pathogens without destroying the nutritional value of the food.
“We have so many rigorous processes and checks to guarantee food safety from farm to fork,” says Jean-Luc. “By the testing stages, we are confident that the finished product is safe.”
Other food safety hazards that can affect health include ‘chemical’ contaminants, which are naturally occurring toxins and environmental pollutants.
Nestlé experienced this first-hand in the region through the local sourcing of crops for the production of cereals.
Eight years ago, the company had to reject about half of the locally grown grains supplied to its factories in Nigeria and Ghana because of the high levels of mycotoxins, explains Jean-Luc.
Mycotoxins are a widespread, natural and fungus-based contamination caused by a humid environment, and poor drying and storage practices. Such toxins can cause immune problems, impaired development in children, and liver damage in both humans and animals.
To help address this, Nestlé’s Grains Quality Improvement Project was launched in 2007 with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
Between 2008-2009, more than 10,000 trained farmers produced grains within Nestlé standards. By 2014, this number increased to 56,000 farmers.
“Thanks to this initiative, local crops now meet these strict specifications and are being used in the production of our infant cereals like Cerelac and family cereals like Golden Morn,” says Jean-Luc.
Safety is paramount
Nestlé aims to prevent food hazards like finding foreign objects in products that aren’t meant to be there, such as glass, metal or wood.
While it is important for the company to ensure that each product reaches consumers in prime condition in taste, safety is also paramount.
“At all our factories in the region, and worldwide, we prepare our products to the highest quality and safety standards, including preventing foreign bodies entering products,” says Jean-Luc.
He explains that the company is doing this in its factories, which are all built to strict standards to ensure a clean and safe water supply, for air filtration, for any material that will come into contact with food, and to make sure its equipment and manufacturing environments produce safe products.
In fact, when products are released from Nestlé’s factories they must pass ‘positive release’ tests to confirm they are safe to consume.
To further guide consumers once the products are released, clear and simple information is included on how to prepare, store and use the product. The ingredients are clearly labelled as well as the allergen risks.
‘Best before’ and ‘use by dates’ are highlighted so people can understand when it is no longer safe to eat or drink the product.
Unique product batch codes can tell the company when it was produced, what ingredients are included and where they were sourced.
An early warning system also helps Nestlé flag up anything that may escalate into problems.
“The earlier we can spot issues, the better,” says Jean-Luc. “Then we can prevent or manage them.
“Consumer health and safety are central to what we do today, and what we have always done.
“We will continue to work with the industry, external authorities and consumers to improve our strict processes to keep up with changing expectations, regulations and scientific knowledge.”
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