ERIS: a new system to monitor and manage emerging food safety risks

7 September 2021

Although horizon scanning and future-proofing is an established function in most organisations, the Centre can play an important role for its members by coordinating and sharing information.

Although horizon scanning and future-proofing is an established function in most organisations, the Centre can play an important role for its members by coordinating and  sharing information.

Together with other Centre scientists, food safety scientist at ESR, Nicola King, has been working on a simple, streamlined system which recognises that people are the best source of intelligence when it comes to perceiving emerging risks. The structure brings people together from a mix of disciplines to share things they’ve noticed, even if there’s very little evidence of it yet being a problem. Alongside this, Nicola and her team gather intelligence from information sources such as the European Food Safety Authority, which has been operating an emerging risk identification system for over 10 years.

The main function of our Emerging Risk Identification System, called ERIS for short, is to focus scientific research so that we can avoid or reduce the impact of future risks. While ERIS has a research focus, it is hoped that the information on potential future risks will allow industry and government to consider whether current risk management practices are adequate for these emerging threats. This is different to a system that triggers a rapid response, such as existing systems that identify known hazards in foods. However, it has already become obvious as people are coming together within ERIS that the system needs to have a stronger role in helping the food industry to identify and respond to rapid changes here in New Zealand, such as the recent discovery of Salmonella Enteritidis in poultry and egg production places, or the arrival of SARS-CoV-2.  
Nicola says there’s no fancy AI involved in the ERIS system at this stage – the focus during 2021-22 is on establishing the networks and information flows to ensure that the intelligence is useful and leads to actions.  There is a very long list of real and potential risks out there - the job is to triage them, decide if they are risks for us, and how important they might become in New Zealand.  If deemed important enough for immediate action, the team will use the “cut to the chase” 2-3 page template they have developed to describe the risk, then work with a lead industry expert to respond. They might need to gather more information, keep an eye on something for a while, or there might be a need for research to get underway. Some of this research might fit well into the Centre’s research funding model.

Emerging risks can be wide and various: allergens in alternative proteins, the potential food safety risks from novel foods like seaweed, foods containing cannabinoids (from cannabis), microplastics in food, a pathogen or chemical turning up unexpectedly in a food, the leaching of chemicals from new packaging materials, changes in consumer behaviour that might expose them to food safety hazards, the emergence of new foodborne pathogens or new antimicrobial resistant strains, changes in food safety risks because of climate change, or hazards identified when laboratory methods change.

The full system is close to being in place (see diagram below). Nicola and her team are ramping up their horizon scanning, and also looking back at emerging risks identified by others over the last two years, to see if there is still a need for us to respond.  MPI’s NZ Food Safety is part of the system, with one of the coordinator roles being filled by Dr Kate Thomas, a Senior Advisor with a background in microbiology and chemistry.  A third coordinator, also from ESR, is team member Seamus Watson, who is a chemist specialising in food safety.  This small team gathers and interprets information, then has the job of making sure the information flows out to people so that they can make informed decisions. 

If members have questions or risk intelligence to share, we are only an email away. 

Director, Dr Catherine McLeod

Nicola King


Grateful thanks to ERIS funders
The funders are:
Horticulture NZ
Meat Industry Association of NZ
Poultry Industry Association of NZ
United Fresh
Westland Milk/Oceania Dairy