Global Food Safety Demands Harmonization

The food supply chain is as strong as its weakest link, and partnerships between the private, public and academic sectors can help.

Yves Rey is a Consultant to Food Companies such as Danone

The modern supply chain spans the globe. The food trade knows no borders, which means the same is true of food hazards. The globalization of the food system introduces new food safety risks, revives previously controlled risks and is, unfortunately, capable of spreading contaminated food. In the global economy, it’s critical to ensure that food safety is managed globally and in a harmonized way.

The best basis for harmonizing regulations is science — utilizing up-to-date, validated knowledge of foodborne pathogens and toxicological hazards. Harmonizing regulations on a scientific basis will provide a true understanding of risks while improving requirements for product testing. We must stop talking, researching, networking and sharing ideas in a silo and get the food community together for concrete actions. Here are the best sector-based forces that have fostered food safety management improvements and how they could be extended to others.

From the Private Sector. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is a private organization working as a coalition of action and bringing together retailers and manufacturers, operating as multi-stakeholder governance with the objective of creating an extended food safety community to oversee food safety standards. But what would be the next step to extend GFSI initiatives to other sectors?

Food safety is everyone’s business. It’s a shared risk and shared responsibility by all stakeholders in the food system continuum. Without altering the division of responsibilities for the food regulators, why not see the GFSI-recognized certification programs as a reliable option for jointly safeguarding food safety? For companies certified under one of the GFSI-recognized schemes, the inspectors could then focus on the requirements of their standards that extend beyond those set by GFSI. This could free up valuable time for more important inspections of more risk-involved corporations.

From the Public Sector. Food safety requires closer linkages among food safety authorities internationally. This is important for exchanging routine information on food safety issues and ensuring rapid access to information in case of food safety emergencies.

The rapid globalization of food production and trade has increased the likelihood of international incidents involving contaminated food. In response to this, the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), a global network of national food safety authorities managed jointly by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), has been created. It aims to promote the rapid exchange of information on important food safety-related issues and to promote partnerships and collaboration. But membership is restricted to government authorities. The private sector is not included but should be. The more relevant and accurate data we have, the easier it is to predict, assess and manage food safety risks. We could set up simple intelligence networks where food stakeholders can share information and intelligence on food safety issues in a safe and secure environment.

From the Academic Sector. These organizations are considered to be excellent educators and teachers, but they also have excellent researchers and incubators, generating new innovative research ideas. Are universities the missing link in private-public collaboration?

Hong Kong Polytechnic University has invested in incubators and created translational research support structures to fund the earliest stages of discovery validation and process optimization. For example, HK PolyU has developed a platform for sharing relevant food safety information between food industry leaders, and it’s really promising. The school could certainly extend its platform to bridge the gap between this newly created industry platform and INFOSAN in a secure and neutral environment.

Enforcement is Everything. Standards without enforcement are nothing more than empty promises to customers and consumers. Developing countries should invest more resources in making sure they have the capacity, skills and policy focus to deliver what we expect from them.

Virtual audits conducted without face-to-face interactions using digital technologies, exchanging data in electronic formats and using Google Glass wearables can lead to more sophisticated analysis. It can also lead to more standardized and accurate risk detection, while reducing the demand for experts on the ground.

Nationally and internationally, public-private partnerships with academic collaborations are increasingly important in our changing society.

January February 2022
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