Global Food Protection is Essential

Columns - International Perspectives

Producer stewardship of safety and responsiveness to warnings can help the industry get closer to food protection, writes Gabriela Steier, founder at foodlawinternational.com and a professor at Northeastern University.

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October 12, 2021

Finland ranks first in the global food security index, followed by Ireland in second place. The United States is 11th, immediately followed by Canada, and then Germany. The lowest ranking countries are Malawi, Zambia, Sudan and Yemen, according to the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), an annual assessment measuring food security. In that same assessment, North America scores highest in food safety, while China scores best in food availability. Europe leads in affordability.

But nearly all regions are lacking in resilience, which is the ability to prepare for, withstand and recover from a crisis or disruption — a bleak future for food protection. What does this rank mean for U.S. food producers, and what is their role? Easy — it puts them in charge.

Food security rankings form a dynamic quantitative and qualitative benchmarking model for food affordability, availability, quality, safety, natural resources and resilience in 113 countries. This index is calculated based on 59 indicators, many of which are under close control of the food industry, such as prices, yield and quality. The GFSI models position various countries and regions on a spectrum of food security, where the highest-ranking countries’ producers are typically enjoying the most stringent regulations and on-point obligations.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Trade Organization (WTO) complimented the resilience of the sector as a whole because food remained essential. (Of course, it did!) This extends to the entire system, beyond the farm-to-fork notion. A whopping 331 million people need to be fed safely in the U.S., alone. The U.S. food sector, with exports tripling in recent years, contributes about $1.1 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product, providing employment for 22.2 million people according to the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS). Big Food is Big Money and Big Politics in the U.S.

Food has always been and remains essential. Food is crucially important to the well-being, health, safety and productivity of societies. Crises ranging from the Irish Potato Famine to the Great Chinese famines teach us that civilizations need to be fed well in order to thrive. Consequences of food insecurity are rampant in history and full of unlearned lessons for the sector. Thus, warning signs from food security indices, such as the GFSI and the World Health Organization (WHO), should alarm all those whose livelihoods are linked to food, which means producers, retailers and consumers. The WHO estimates that 600 million people globally — almost 1 in 10 — fall ill after eating contaminated food each year, resulting in 420,000 deaths. These deaths wreck an estimated 33 million healthy life years, productive time lost that could have fueled the economy, trade, tourism and sustainable development. The WHO speaks of public health threats resulting from unsafe food, rooted in globalized food trade, population increases, climate change and rapidly changing food systems.

The harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances that can cause foodborne diseases are entirely preventable, most often at the hands of producers and retailers.

The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP), which hosts annual meetings for thousands of members, including top industry, academic and governmental food safety professionals worldwide, addresses exactly this insight: Preventing food-related public health threats is in these professionals’ power. Simply put, food safety professionals are the stewards of food safety. Their mission lies in protecting global food safety and what comes with it — nutrition, resilience, livelihoods and more.

The resulting essentiality of food safety feeds into every aspect of society. Think about sick workers causing deficits in the workforce, or consider the starving and ill populations hindering growth in developing countries.

What is going to cause the most concern globally in the near future are pandemics, climate disasters and fragmented policies that will fail to address the very issues that feed the GFSI and WHO food safety index calculations. These warning signs are fueled by conflicted, corrupted and foolish strategies that leave producers in charge and overlook precautionary tales.

As concomitant protectors of food safety, all those in charge cannot be conflicted by their drive for profit, growth or market competition. What is needed to get to the right path toward improved protection is an understanding of the gravity of the warnings through penetration of education of all food producers.

Without truly global food protection, the entire sector is doomed. The role of those bringing food to the citizens of the world is an essential privilege, and it is up for grabs.