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Food Safety News

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Putting Science on the Table

Opinion

I’m heartened by the fact that so many people are finally talking about food and nutrition security. There is increasingly widespread recognition that our growing population, increasingly volatile weather conditions, limited natural resources, and many other factors are straining our food and agricultural systems and will undoubtedly further complicate the significant challenge of achieving food and nutrition security. It is, no doubt, a complex puzzle.

Some of the important puzzle pieces get much less attention, such as the need for consensus-driven, science-based regulatory frameworks and standards that enable innovative solutions to reach the hands of farmers and consumers more quickly. Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) — the forum for setting international food safety and quality standards — is one such piece of the food and nutrition security puzzle.

Unfortunately, disputes within international bodies like Codex responsible for developing regulatory frameworks and standards have arguably become the thorniest topic in the international trade of food and agricultural products. In fact, these forums that are unbeknownst to many of us are impeding our progress toward food and nutrition security.

Someone once aptly described attending a Codex meeting as somewhat akin to watching molasses drip uphill. Codex meetings, where food safety regulators from all over the world convene — sometimes for several days — to agree on maximum thresholds or labeling protocols can be quite painstaking and, well, boring.

But they matter.

They matter to how we move food and agricultural products around the world from countries of surplus to countries unable to meet domestic demand. And they matter because the food and agricultural products that reach our tables and grocery stores are subject to regulations and standards to ensure they are safe for us to consume.

However, reaching a common view on such complex scientific matters among 186 Codex member governments and 221 Codex observer organizations is not an easy task. Regrettably, while it is the job of food safety regulators to protect the public, their views on the scientific matters before them can also be shaped or superseded by rather unscientific views of other government agencies and commercial interests.

I have seen one too many times how a scientific risk assessment can drag on for years under the guise of wanting to reach “greater certainty on a complex scientific matter” and “protecting the public” when the reality points to an underlying competitive concern by one lobby or another. And, with the continuous lowering of import tariffs (despite some remaining tariff peaks), discussions around regulations and standards have only become more difficult to resolve.

If there is value in an open and equitable trading system, all of us should care if a multinational company’s exports are thwarted by supposedly scientific, but actually commercially motivated, debates. If we believe that innovation requires the promise of payback to the inventor, all of us should care if investment dollars cannot be recouped because of an inability to export its products. And we should all care about unacceptable rates of micronutrient deficiencies in children and chronic hunger, which could be mitigated by innovations unable to reach markets due to unfounded safety concerns.

These are important considerations in the face of our pressing food and nutrition security challenges. The global community will need to embrace all available tools to meet global food demand, including new science-based technologies. It is the role of international bodies like Codex to ensure that this goal is accomplished without allowing seemingly protectionist impulses and commercial disputes to get in the way.

It is only through greater innovation and access to such innovation that we will be able to cultivate a more abundant, safer and healthier food supply.

© Food Safety News