In a review article published on August 25, 2021, in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Shanxue Jiang and co-authors from the Beijing Technology and Business University, China, combined a scientometric study with a subjective discussion to summarize recent research on food safety and environmental protection.
The scientists collected all data available in the bibliographic database Web of Science Core Collection on the topic “environment and food safety” published between 2001 and 2020. They used the term “environment” to consider both natural environments (e.g., air, water) as well as food-related environments (e.g., food processing, packaging, storage). A total of 4094 publications met their criteria, and on these publications they performed a scientometric-based statistical study analyzing most-cited papers, titles, abstracts, keywords, and research areas.
The analysis demonstrated that research on food safety and environmental protection has grown steadily over the past 20 years. The authors considered the topic to be of global interest since institutions from more than 50 countries have published 20 or more articles on the subject. The two countries identified as having the highest research outputs were the US and China, providing around 25% and 15% of all publications, respectively. The research focus of the most-cited papers were food inspection/detection techniques, heavy metal pollution, food additives, food packaging, food allergies, food pesticides, foodborne pathogens and diseases, microplastics, food processing, and food production. “Food safety” was the keyword most mentioned across the publications (in 17%). In that context, many studies focused on microorganisms (e.g., pathogens) or chemicals in food (e.g., due to migration from packaging, contamination from agriculture) and their potential hazards. Concerning material types, the review found that biobased and biodegradable materials, food packaging, coatings, (bio)sensors, and nanoparticles received the highest research attention.
The scientists also critically discuss strategies to ensure food safety and to protect the environment from contaminants. On the food safety side, they emphasize that pollution control along the whole food value chain is key and that additional laws controlling contamination of food should be enacted. Additionally, monitoring and regular food safety inspections on food safety need to be ensured. On the environmental protection side, the authors highlight reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, deriving uses for food waste, and developing sustainable methods for treating food waste. Recent actions to improve food safety by the United States House of Representatives include the introduction of the Toxic Free Food Act which would require the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review all chemicals added to food that are currently allowed on the market under the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) rule (FPF reported), as well as the Food Chemical Reassessment Act of 2021 which would require the FDA to create a new Office of Food Safety Reassessment (FPF reported). For the EU and neighboring countries, an overview of institutions responsible for food and feed safety, the EU Food Safety Almanac, has recently been published (FPF reported).
The review by Jiang et al. also discusses emerging research topics in the field including certain groups of contaminants like persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disrupting chemicals. The authors emphasized that more research is needed on contaminants’ migration, degradation, accumulation potential, and risks. They considered it important to develop rapid methods that can even detect trace-level concentrations of food contaminants. Environment-friendly food packaging materials are also discussed. Here, it is highlighted that monomers and additives migrating from plastics, and their biodegradable alternatives, can cause food safety issues.
The authors conclude that, although the topic of environmental and food safety is receiving increasing interest, there are still challenging but underappreciated issues that need further work. They categorize these challenges into (1) the elimination of environmental pollutants, (2) the effective and efficient disposal of food waste, (3) the realization of whole-process monitoring of contaminants (which is hampered by the diversity of contaminants and their origin including food cultivation, processing, packaging, transportation, and retailing), and (4) the uncertainty of the effects of environmental pollutants on human health (due to the difficulties establishing appropriate procedures for analyzing it).
Jiang, S., et al. (2021). “Environment and food safety: a novel integrative review.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research. DOI: 10.1007/s11356-021-16069-6