The Perplexing State of Global Food Safety


A recent Kansas State food safety study reveals differences around the world attributed to an esoteric mix of scientific proof, cultural beliefs, living conditions and simple stubborn habits.

Americans have been told for generations that the only safe way to store eggs is in the refrigerator. That’s not the case in many parts of the world, for a variety of reasons.

“In many places around the world, people don’t buy their eggs in the refrigeration section of the grocery store,” says Edgar Chambers IV, professor and director of the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University. “They are on the dry-goods shelf.”

The center recently completed a 10-nation study to learn about consumer food safety practices and beliefs. Chambers, who has been involved in the center for its entire 30-year existence and has been director for nearly 25 years, says he was not surprised by the early findings of the study because he has traveled the world extensively. But, he says, a lot of people might be surprised.

Kansas State University Sensory Analysis Center director Edgar Chambers IV.

“The world is a different place,” Chambers says. “What we have learned is that everyone around the world is concerned about food safety. But beliefs, knowledge and practices are very different. It’s fascinating to see how we differ from the rest of the world in our food-related behaviors.”

In the United States, food safety is viewed as being very important. Consumers and manufacturers have been provided with a lot of information to help improve food safety. However, circumstances may change the approach.

In many parts of the world, refrigerators are much smaller than those in the United States. Refrigerating products is not viewed as essential. In some countries, consumers don’t even have consistent refrigeration.

“If you look at a place like India, which is one of the places where we did our research, the likelihood that you’re going to have electricity 24 hours a day is practically nil,” Chambers says. “Our survey was conducted in Hyderabad, India, where it’s very common for electricity to be off for several hours per day.”

Chambers notes that living space also can be an issue. In America, many people will have a big family meal in one room and leave the food on the table to move to another room to visit. That is not possible in a lot of other countries.

“In a lot of countries in Europe, for example, they don’t have the luxury of moving to another room,” he says. “The holiday meal is served where they have the space for conversation. As soon as the meal is over, the food is put away.”

“We have to understand people’s habits when we try to export our products around the world. If we don’t have a clear understanding of what people do with our products, they’re not going to buy them.” ~ Edgar Chambers IV, Director of the Sensory Analysis Center at KSU

Food safety is not strictly a matter of convenience. As countries evolve and food becomes less localized, as it has in the U.S., manufacturing processes are sped up. There is more potential for food safety problems, like bacterial and microbial problems, according to Chambers. In that case, he says, the U.S. is doing a great job and the rest of the world is starting to catch up. However, where food is consumed locally, there isn’t as much potential for bacterial contamination.

“As we speed up the manufacturing process, there’s more potential for contamination,” he says. “(Manufacturers in the U.S.) are doing great things to help keep that from happening. We have the potential to keep those things from happening if we put the right systems in place.”

The Sensory Advisory Center was established at Kansas State to help the soft-drink industry understand its market better. Since then, the center has done studies on various food products, as well as automobile paint finishes, fax machines, shampoos and conditioners to name just a few. “We say if you can taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it or hear it, we test it,” Chambers says.

Chambers was part of the first study conducted at the center 30 years ago. He worked with the center for the next few years before replacing the retiring director six years later.

The center is now a worldwide venture, with sister centers in Thailand, Spain and India (coming soon), among other countries. It also involves many U.S. universities and independent researchers. The food safety study was in partnership with 10 other universities around the world, including Tennessee State University. The focus of the center is “whatever product or information needs to be developed is developed,” Chambers explains.

It’s much broader than food, and much broader than safety, he emphasizes. “We like to say that the Center is a hub of international networks,” Chambers says.

The fact that the center is in Kansas is great in a couple of ways.

“This benefits the people of Kansas,” Chambers remarks. “We have to understand people’s habits when we try to export our products around the world. If we don’t have a clear understanding of what people do with our products, they’re not going to buy them. It’s very important, even at a base level, to understand what people are doing with products that may be exported from our state.

“From the Kansas State perspective, the university wants to be globally known,” he continues. “The more we can do locally to enhance our reputation around the world, the better. It helps our students interact with people around the world. Let’s face facts. We’re not going to be able to send 22,000-plus students on a foreign trip every year. Giving them the opportunity to interact with people from other cultures [enables us] to attract the best students. Top students from other countries need to think, ‘Kansas State is the leader in this area.’