Climate change and food safety – a complex and important issue

Date 8 December 2015

Salmonella, a cause of foodborne illness Salmonella, a cause of foodborne illness

Changes in our planet’s climate are likely to have a number of implications for human health and welfare, including the safety of our food.

The possible implications of climate change on availability and access to food (food sustainability) has been widely researched and debated. Climate change is generally seen as having a negative impact on food sustainability, particularly in developing countries.

Food security is concerned with the sustained availability of safe food for all. There has been a lot of attention on how food production could be affected by climate change, however, the possible implication of climate change on food safety is an emerging field of research.  Climate change may affect the incidence of foodborne illness. Increases in temperature and humidity and extreme weather conditions may enable better survival/growth of foodborne pathogens. Similarly, warmer temperatures in summer and milder winters may increase the abundance of pests such as insects which can influence the spread or transmission of foodborne pathogens.  

Last week Professor Mike Peck, Deputy Leader of the Gut Health & Food Safety programme, attended a workshop held in London on climate change and food safety, organised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Clostridium botulinum Clostridium botulinum

Below, Mike blogs about the workshop:

“While the wider effects of climate change on issues such as food sustainability are presently being discussed by world leaders in Paris, the workshop held in London focussed on the potential effect of climate change on food safety. The workshop was attended by scientists from industry, academia and Government. It is essential that consumers have access to an affordable healthy diet, now and in the future, and since the impact of climate change on food safety is one of the key food safety challenges facing the UK, then we need to explore options to tackle this issue proactively.

Presentations from Lord Krebs (Chair of the Committee on Climate Change Adaptation Sub-Committee), Dr Iain Lake (UEA) and Prof. Gordon Nichols (Public Health England) considered the broader potential impacts of climate change on food safety. An interesting point was that most foodborne diseases show a seasonality, implying a role of climate. Possible direct impacts identified included higher temperatures permitting better growth or survival of foodborne pathogens in the food chain, although the position is likely to be more complex. Possible indirect impacts include a change in diet in response to warmer weather, and the importing of food from different areas of the world. These may all lead to changes in human exposure to foodborne pathogens. Discussions focussed on developing a better understanding of the food safety risks associated with climate change, the importance of monitoring and research to maintain public health and food safety, and devising workable strategies for minimising the key risks. The workshop also considered the specific example of mycotoxins, and how climate change and the resulting weather conditions might influence their presence in food.”


Andrew Chapple

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