Global food safety: the many challenges

Food Safety Challenges

A food recall or a laxity in enforcement of food safety laws always invite bad press.  All the more tragic is the harm to the public and deaths as a result.  There have been several cases reported in the United States itself – be it the case of E-coli in meat that sickened many, or the case of salmonella-tainted pasteurised milk, or the recall of half a billion eggs, or the recall of bagged greens – the most recent in June this year.  If not for the recalls, it would lead to foodborne illnesses.  This impacts not just human health and well-being but also hinders agricultural transformation, market integration, and economic development.  More integrated markets mean more market players between farm and table and more stages along the value chain prone to contamination.  That’s why the issue of food safety is drawing ever more attention.

Food safety life cycle

The World Bank recently brought to light a concept called food safety life cycle.  It says that the burden of unsafe food shifts according to economic development. At the first level is the ‘traditional’ stage of the food safety life cycle, where food production practices are fairly effective at controlling food-borne illnesses. Here, the primary cause of foodborne illnesses is poor hygiene.  As food systems modernise, countries shift to a ‘transitional’ stage in the food life cycle.

Here, food safety hazards become broader, as urbanised consumers show a shift in dietry preferences.  At this stage, most food-borne hazards are caused by changes in production and consumption practices of fresh foods such as meat products and fruits and vegetables.  There’s also an increase in food imports, particularly of perishable fresh products, opening potentially new food-borne hazards.  This is the scenario which overwhelms governmental regulatory bodies, and their tools to address food safety challenges need restructuring.  It requires a more sophisticated monitoring and regulatory system to set up and execute food safety systems.

Food safety in developing economies vs developed economies

One thing to note is that there are different issues with regard to food safety in developed countries vs developing ones.  Low and middle income countries are hardest hit, with South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and south of Sahara accounting for 53 per cent of all foodborne illnesses.  According to WHO, the illnesses, disability and premature deaths resulting from unsafe foods led to productivity losses of approximately 95 billion USD in 2016 in low and middle-income countries.

The causes here are lack of good quality data on country-level incidence of food-borne illnesses and institutional challenges like fragmented food value chains and policies, which make it difficult to set up food safety systems with a holistic perspective.  Policy initiatives have not been much in these countries.  But the story is different in developed countries, where there is already refrigeration capacity, effective food storage measures and regulation of food safety standards which can help prevent contamination.  Yet, in the U.S., the financial impact of recall is quite significant: 52 per cent of all recalls cost over 10 million USD and 23 per cent cost over 30 million USD, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Meeting food safety standards through traceability and certification

Traceability

Meeting the food safety challenges brought about in the new global context requires a “whole value chain” approach that identifies and addresses risks right from production through consumption.  Traceability is the ability to follow the movement of a food product and its constituents up and down the food chain in order to prevent unsafe food from reaching consumers.

Traceability is getting increasing attention because in all these unforseen food safety lapses, time is the enemy.  When we look at look at food safety beyond recalls, the important thing is to keep track of the origin of products, ingredients and their attributes, from the farm through food processing to retail, food service and consumer.

Traceability solutions

Increasingly, public health concerns are demanding traceability, but sustaining it is mostly the job of economic drivers of businesses.  Traceability solutions can help with food defence and emergency planning.  By providing complete visibility to the supply chain, the preparedness to tackle any contigency is high.  It also improves the agility or response by all stakeholders.  And during the recovery phase, traceability cah help the industry and regulators to maintain or rebuild trust with consumers into the safety and resiliency of the food system.  It can also help pin-point the root cause of the problem for future prevention.

Certification

Certification is a third party verification that products, processes or systems in the food supply chain meet accepted food safety standards.  Certifications are provided after the results of tests, inspections and audits.  It gives confidence to the consumer because an organisation’s products and/or system has been throroughly evaluated against accepted national and international industry standards by a competent third party body.

Food safety standards are becoming the norm for businesses throughout the food supply chain. Whether the business seeks global or national and/or industry specific certification depends on where/with whom the company is doing business and what standards are expected or required.  A global certification can eliminate the need for other certifications, making it cost-effective for the business.

How food safety supports SDGs

A new report from the World Bank states that food safety is vital for achieving many of the SDGs, including ending poverty and hunger and promoting health and well being.  The report also talks about a strong call to action, focusing on the need to create cohesive and well-funded domestic food safety management systems and public – private partnerships in low and middle-income countries.

What the public can do about it

Finally, consumer demand can play an important part in improving food safety techniques and standards.  As the end user in the food supply chain, it’s worth trying to ‘know your farmer’ and ask about their practices and support what they are doing.  It’s the path to eating better, worrying less and supporting a better food system.  The same applies to seafood – educate yourself on sustainable aquaculture and only buy from suppliers who are transparent about the origin of their fish.  Another way is to say no to GMOs.  GMOs are untested for their effect on human health; and they don’t necessarily produce greater yields.  So, find out about crops are commonly genetically modified and only buy organic versions.

 

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