Celebrating World Food Safety Day - Interview with Sonia Andre

To celebrate World Food Safety Day 2020, which inspires actions to help prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks, contribute to food security, human health, economic prosperity, agriculture, market access and sustainable development, Sterling Crew (Chair, IFST Food Safety Group) talks to key members of the group, about their roles and experiences. ‘Food safety, everyone's business’.


Sterling Crew, Chair of the IFST’s Food Safety Group talks to Sonia Andre in conjunction with the second World Food Safety Day (7 June 2020).

Sonia Andre MSc FIFSTSonia has worked in the food and beverage industry in technical and quality management since graduating. She spent a few years working on cereal crops in France, working on drinks in the Caribbean, then 15 years in fresh produce in the UK, working with many countries around the world. In 2018, she decided to go freelance. Sonia now offers independent support and guidance to businesses - anything from internal/second party auditing, consulting, training, mentoring, or expert support with a particular project, or with the day today. Whilst she particularly enjoys the world of fresh produce, she also loves discovering and helping other parts of the food and drink sector, so that she can continue learning and developing her knowledge.

  1. How did you start your career in the food industry and what motivated you to join?

The honest answer is probably that I ‘fell into it’. At school, I used to love maths, foreign languages and life sciences, and so I tried to continue studying following a path which would keep me going on all 3 subjects for as long as possible. I did well at my ‘classes prépas’ exams (part of the French post-secondary education system) and accessed one of the top 10 ‘Grandes Ecoles’ (elite education institutes) in France, where I did my masters in General Agronomy and then specialised in Food Science and Technology. I realised during my final work placement (implementation of HACCP) that I really enjoyed quality assurance, systems and processes, methods, organisation, rationalisation, the spirit of continuous improvement. I was fortunate to get my first job as a Quality Assurance Manager in a Cereal Crops Cooperative. I loved it and continued in that field.

  1. What were the main food safety challenges during your work in the fruit and vegetable sector?

The main food safety challenges during my years in fresh produce have been microbiology related: pathogen scares (Salmonella, E. Coli and Listeria). Of the categories I managed directly, it never, thankfully, came to a really serious situation. I remember the Salmonella outbreak linked to Honduran cantaloupes in 2008. This was the most complex and largest scale food safety challenge I came really close to in my career in fresh produce. In case anyone reading this article might think ‘what about pesticides?’ Yes, I’ve dealt with challenges involving pesticides, but none posing a food safety risk, rather to do with legality, environment, sustainability and quality, in terms of: residues detected in excess of the EU MRLs (maximum residue levels), but always below the ARfD (acute reference dose); residues of banned chemicals detected - coming from the soil, years after those chemicals were banned; trade names not registered for minor crops etc.

  1. The Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak in the United States, last year, was disturbing. What are your thoughts on its origins and control?

It is really concerning that these cases in leafy greens keep happening. The origin of such contaminations can be pre- or post-harvest. Contamination by water is a possibility (for example if the fields are irrigated using above-ground water sources, there is a risk of contamination of that water by animal faeces; controls and risk management would include water treatment, livestock kept separately from the crops etc.). Contamination by soil is another possibility (Romaine lettuce grows with open leaves so it is particularly exposed to dust or soil blowing in; growing in hydroponic systems or in greenhouses would reduce that risk). If animal manure is used to fertilise the crops but was not composted suitably, that’s another possible cause (controls lie in the careful sourcing and/or preparation of the compost: approved suppliers, strict controlled production methods etc.). Poor hygiene during growing, harvesting, post-harvest handling, packing and/or transport can also be to blame (staff training, HACCP, regular hygiene inspections, environmental monitoring, are amongst the controls which should be in place). As of May 2020, the FDA believes that cattle grazing nearby may have been a leading contributing factor, for that particular outbreak, and also for previous ones. Because of the recurring nature of those incidents and the scale of the recalls they entail, I would see value in making listing the origin and production system, on product labels, compulsory. It would not help prevent incidents, but it would enable more targeted and therefore smaller and less costly recalls. Of course, technologies such as blockchain could facilitate traceability and be a very valuable management tool.

  1. You have taken the first steps on a new journey to become a consultant. What motivated you to do this and is it what you expected?

My son was going to start primary school in September 2018. I wanted more flexibility in my work so that I could be present for him, do some of the school runs, some after school activities etc. My position at the time was never going to give me the life balance I was seeking, so I had to make a decision. It was hard to leave my job and a business I was very attached to but I’m happy I did it. In many ways working freelance is what I expected, and it’s also been a huge learning curve and a really exciting experience. What was very nice and helpful to me was to realise that so many other parents, or carers, had been there and made similar life choices and were happy to have done so.

  1. The influence of culture is at the top of the food safety agenda. What does it mean to you and how does it impact upon your work?

It’s probably making my work easier to be honest. It’s no longer just ‘me, the technical manager’, ‘me, the quality assurance manager’, ‘me, the auditor’, ‘me, the compliance guru’ advising senior managers that ‘for it to work, it has got to come from the top and transpire throughout the organisation’. It’s British Retail Consortium (BRC), it’s the food manufacturing and retail giants, it’s the renowned specialists, it’s the whole food industry. 20 years ago, being in charge of food safety in certain food sectors or businesses could be a really lonely experience. I feel we have come a long way, and it is much better now that there is that global voice promoting food safety culture.

  1. What do you think are going to be the biggest challenges ahead of us in relation to food safety and how do we address them?

Globalisation and allergies are those that worry me the most currently. Globalisation because of the complexity it brings to our food supply chains, and the growing opportunities for food fraud and malicious adulteration. And allergies because I see them as such a moving target. In their legal texts: the USA list of 8 major allergens; 14 in Europe. But there are hundreds of substances which people could have severe reactions to. Someone mildly sensitive to a food substance could suddenly develop a severe reaction to it, or someone with no food allergies at all could suddenly develop one. How do you manage risk effectively when there are so many variables to factor in?

  1. What are your customers telling you that they need support with?

Currently, I’m mostly being asked for general support on fresh produce and for guidance and help with food safety and quality (FS&Q) certification projects for businesses needing to gain certification against voluntary schemes, in order to access particular markets in the UK, or in Europe. I’m conscious it’s early days for me as a freelance consultant and this could progress into a very different direction, but it’s the trend I’ve been seeing in the past few months.

  1. Do you have any tips for members who are just starting their careers?

Whichever career path you get on, chances are you probably won’t stay on that path your whole life, so be focused but also keep your eyes and your mind open, save space in your diary for learning, networking and sharing.