Safety Is a Cornerstone of Ingredient Sustainability – Food Safety Magazine, February/March 2016

“The ingredient carrageenan offers a good example of sustainability principles in action”

With a world population of more than 7 billion people and growing, it is essential that those involved in all aspects of food production strive to produce goods more efficiently and in a more environmentally and socially responsible manner.

Food manufacturers are working to increase the sustainability of their global footprint while at the same time making their products safer from farm to plate.

Suppliers and manufacturers are accomplishing this by upgrading existing operations and consistently evaluating the safety and sustainability of their products and processes, ensuring a more environmentally responsible supply chain from beginning to end. As producers have increased efforts to become greater stewards of the environment, so too have consumers become more invested in the sources, safety and impact of the goods they buy.

According to a Nielsen study:

“Fifty-five percent of global online consumers across 60 countries say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. The propensity to buy socially responsible brands is strongest in Asia-Pacific (64%), Latin America (63%) and Middle East/Africa (63%). The numbers for North America and Europe are 42 and 40 percent, respectively.”[1]

Consumer scrutiny is felt acutely by food and beverage manufacturers in the demand for transparency and products offering more natural or certified organic ingredients, foods that consumers feel are more sustainably produced. According to the Organic Trade Association, over the last decade, sales of organic foods have grown 22 percent a year.[2] Suppliers and manufacturers are adapting to meet these demands while at the same time continuing to deliver nutritious food that tastes good.

Underpinning the consumer’s ability to make values-based choices and the ability of manufacturers and suppliers to respond in kind is the knowledge that safety must come before everything. When talking about our food system, we can’t lose sight of the fundamental goal: feeding people safely and nutritiously. We cannot think of the safety of products in isolation; rather, we must consider human impact equally along the supply chain from farmer through the end consumer. If an ingredient is not safe—safe to both produce and consume—then its organic label claim or sustainability profile carry little weight. In this way, safety is the cornerstone of sustainability. Safe practices inform sustainability and make the goal of improving our collective global footprint possible.

Our understanding of sustainability comprises five components: safe, ethical and responsible practices; respect for others and empowerment of talent; commitment to improving the quality of life in communities where we operate; effective and responsible use of resources; and continuous innovation to improve our efforts.

These principles guide business in a way that allows for the achievement of goals that make the world a better place today, tomorrow and in the future.

With all these factors at play, there is no single definition of what makes a food product or ingredient sustainable, but rather, many considerations must be taken into account:

• What is the ingredient source? Is it renewable?

• How is raw material harvested? Is the practice safe and can it be made more so?

• How is the ingredient used in products? To what benefit? What body of evidence do we have that supports the ingredient’s safe use in food?

• What is the profile of finished products? What are their benefits?

• Does this ingredient pose a safety risk at any point in the supply chain?

As we consider particular ingredients, we must tackle these questions, asking ourselves where there are opportunities for improvement and how any negative impacts can be mitigated. We’re seeing with greater clarity that if an ingredient is not sustainable to harvest, sustainable to use and, most importantly, safe every step of the way, then it must be brought in line or it won’t remain a viable option for manufacturers for long.

The ingredient carrageenan offers a good example of sustainability principles in action. Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed and is used to thicken and stabilize many foods and beverages. Other products that offer similar benefits include synthetic soluble fibers or gelatin derived from animals. Carrageenan offers a renewable, plant-based alternative. Other such naturally sourced, renewable ingredients include cellulose gel, sourced from sustainable forests, and alginates, derived from brown seaweed.

Carrageenan has been used in home kitchens in coastal regions for hundreds of years, but its commercial use in the United States began around World War II. Around this time, Krim-Ko, a Chicago-based dairy company, began using it in their bottled chocolate milk to prevent sedimentation.

Seaweed from the New England coast was the original source of carrageenan in the U.S., where it was harvested by hand and processed in local facilities. However, as its commercial use has grown, the sources for carrageenan have diversified and the harvesting process has expanded and improved. Today, commercial seaweed farming is generally considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly types of aquaculture. It promotes biodiversity without impacting seascape and requires no arable land or fresh water. More formalized techniques for farming tropical seaweed were developed in the 1960s, making seaweed farming a viable option for seaside communities across the globe. It is both environmentally and economically sustainable. Most tropical seaweed, more than 210,000 metric tons every year, is farmed in the Philippines, Indonesia and East Africa by family-owned farms that play an important role in sustaining their coastal communities. Using established practices, farmers can safely harvest considerably more seaweed over consistent and predictable periods and create a reliable, steady income for their families.

Once harvested, seaweed is processed to yield carrageenan with minimal waste. It produces some biosolids, which, rather than going to a landfill, can be used for practical applications including composting material, organic fertilizers, soil conditioning or “land farming” and cattle feed supplements.

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