What is Food Safety?

Food safety is an increasingly important discipline integrating various fields of scientific research to mitigate the risks of waterborne and foodborne diseases. Due to the overlap with other fields, food safety is also affected by issues of socioeconomic and environmental change, highlighting the interconnectedness of food science in the modern world.

Food Safety

Food Safety. Image Credit: Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock.com

Defining food safety in a rapidly changing world

Food safety refers to the processing, preparation, and handling of food to ensure it safe to eat. This process is synonymous to food hygiene and is related to the mitigation of food-related issues including food poisoning, foodborne illnesses, and diseases.

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), foodborne disease is described as “any disease of an infectious or toxic nature caused by, or thought to be caused by, the consumption of food or water”. Such diseases, therefore, incorporate various chemical, physical or microbiological hazards, present in food or water.

In contemporary food production, items prepared for consumption will undergo a process of steps from producer to the point of consumption with the potential for contamination possible at each step. The value of ensuring the safety of food items is therefore maintained at each step of food production and processing.

An emerging issue in an increasingly connected world is the international processes that food now experiences, as many items are transported around the world to cater to the needs of different populations. This further increases the risk of contamination and has been a major challenge for food safety research.

Past, present, and future of food safety

The importance of ensuring food safety was recognized from the very beginning of human history and was of increasing significance with the shift to agricultural-based lifestyles. Early humans developed processes of preservation, such as drying, salting, or fermenting, to make food safer to eat in the long term.

Food preservation was reported in early Chinese history, with documents describing vegetable fermentation. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all recorded measures to preserve food. Other instances are also recorded in the book of Leviticus from 2000BC, as Moses advised to wash and bathe after slaughtering animals, to protect people from foodborne diseases.

In modern society, food safety relies upon the longstanding history of microbiology-related food research. In a 2006 review on the history of food safety, Christopher Griffith outlines the 150 years of microbe research contributing to today’s food safety practices. The author assembles a timeline of scientific research relating to food safety, discussing the value of each discovery.

Importantly, the review then discusses the need to explore other aspects contributing to food safety and not just microbiological hazards. Specifically, that research needs to focus on other elements of food safety including food handling behavior, the organizing of food processing, and the efficiency of food safety management systems currently in place.

These concerns were echoed in a more recent study from 2017 published in the Journal of Food Research International. Here, the authors assembled an integrative review exploring the significance of attitudes and practices of food handlers relating to food safety. From the analysis of over 250 studies, scientists were able to determine that fifty percent of the articles had no proper translation of knowledge into attitudes or practices.

Such a discrepancy between scientific knowledge of food safety handling and regulation and successful practice highlights the need to integrate current existing knowledge into practices to avoid further hazardous behavior. This must be done through the development of relevant policies, as policymakers must recognize existing science, as well as a greater effort of scientists to communicate their findings to policymakers and stakeholders on the significance of research.

The implications of food safety in a world of multiple stressors

Food safety is by no means a standalone issue. It is recognized that practices relating to food safety also incorporate other challenges including environmental impacts. In an increasingly international and multidimensional society, the overlap between areas affected by human activity also increases. This was highlighted in a 2018 study led by Portuguese researchers who explored the emerging threat of marine microplastic debris in food safety concerns.

The review discussed the increasing concerns that plastic particles have for human health, demonstrating the lack of knowledge regarding plastic ingestion in humans. Indeed, a lack of research was highlighted in this review, which discussed the urgent need to understand the risks of exposure to micro-and nano-sized plastics.

Moreover, the risks to food safety policies are exacerbated in countries lacking sufficient regulations, as countries experiencing socioeconomic difficulties do not have the infrastructure or funding to ensure adequate food safety. Such challenges highlight the connectedness of food safety with greater issues such as food security, which is often lacking in many international policies promoting practices of food safety.

This relationship between food security and safety was further discussed in a 2017 article by Australian researchers led by Thea King, in which authors presented the increasing associations between safety and security. This balance is easily affected by socioeconomic and environmental issues such as global climate change.

Ultimately, the authors concluded by highlighting the need for food safety to be “an enabler and not inhibitor of global food security”, relating to the potential for technology and practices of food safety to encourage rather than constrain global food security by introducing strict safety practices. This will be of particular significance when addressing issues in more disfavoured geographic regions, as those areas are most susceptible to issues of food insecurity and global change.


  • Barboza, L. G. A., Dick Vethaak, A., Lavorante, B. R. B. O., Lundebye, A.-K., & Guilhermino, L. (2018). Marine microplastic debris: An emerging issue for food security, food safety, and human health. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 133, 336–348. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2018.05.047
  • Bronzwaer, S., Kass, G., Robinson, T., Tarazona, J., Verhagen, H., Verloo, D., Vrbos, D., & Hugas, M. (2019). Food Safety Regulatory Research Needs 2030. EFSA Journal, 17(7), 1. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2019.e170622
  • Griffith, C. J. (2006). Food safety: where from and where to? British Food Journal, 108(1), 6–15. doi:10.1108/00070700610637599
  • King, T., Cole, M., Farber, J. M., Eisenbrand, G., Zabaras, D., Fox, E. M., & Hill, J. P. (2017). Food safety for food security: Relationship between global megatrends and developments in food safety. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 68, 160–175. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2017.08.014
  • Zanin, L. M., da Cunha, D. T., de Rosso, V. V., Capriles, V. D., & Stedefeldt, E. (2017). Knowledge, attitudes, and practices of food handlers in food safety: An integrative review. Food Research International, 100, 53–62. doi:10.1016/j.foodres.2017.07.042

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 3, 2021

James Ducker

Written by

James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  


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