Few threats addressed by the United Nations are as undiscriminating as foodborne pathogens, which don’t honor international borders or differentiate between first- and third-world status. Similarly few threats addressed by the international body are as easy to mitigate as food safety, at least in theory.

Ajay Markanday
Ajay Markanday is director of the North American Liaison Office of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. He is based in Washington D.C. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations)
“Food safety is not really complicated or expensive,” said Ajay Markanday, director of the North American Liaison Office for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. “As an economist I know (businesses) have to look at the cost of not dealing with food safety. … Food safety can be regarded in terms of sustained economic growth.” Markanday, who is just completing his first year as director of the liaison office in Washington D.C., said one of his goals in the position is to bring food safety discussions more prominently into the FAO’s work on food security. Today, Markanday is scheduled to address a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It’s the first time in the history of the FAO that the organization has made such an appearance. The scheduled topic — “The Stunning Global Impact of Nutrition and Supplements During the First 1,000 Days” — will mainly involve food and nutrition security for young children, but Markanday said it’s nearly impossible to separate food safety and food security. “Food safety is a strand in our endeavor to ensure food security,” Markanday said during a recent interview with Food Safety News. “We need to get policy and opinion makers to see the synergies between food safety and food security.” Science may well be the best way to illustrate the benefits of both food safety and food security, Markanday said. Markus Lipp, a senior food safety officer for the FAO who is based in Rome, agrees that science is key, saying one goal is to get to the nexus of food safety and food security. But he also said the safety of the 28 billion meals needed daily to feed the world can’t be achieved through science alone.
Markus Lipp, based in Rome, is a senior food safety officer for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. (Photo courtesy of United Nations)
Markus Lipp, based in Rome, is a senior food safety officer for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. (Photo courtesy of United Nations)
“As consumers we want to have the luxury of taking our food safety for granted,” Lipp said. “But consumers have the right and responsibility to ask questions.” One question consumers should consider, Lipp said, is “Does it make sense that this food is so cheap?” He said the expression “if it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not” especially applies to food safety. “We (consumers) must demonstrate that we care about food safety,” Lipp said. “Call the 800 number on the package and ask questions. Ask local and federal authorities. Find out about what you are eating before you eat it.” Lipp sees food safety as a shared responsibility involving consumers, regulators, lawmakers and the food industry. “In the end, food safety is intimately connected to trust,” he said. “We depend on trusting the government, industry, farmers, legislators and everyone from farm to fork. … No single institution or country can do it all.” From a global perspective, Lipp said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is pretty effective in terms of being part of the solution. For example, the information sharing issues of law enforcement agencies that were brought to light earlier this year after the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels are not generally a problem in the food safety arena, he said. “There is a lot of data sharing among food safety agencies with their international (counterparts),” Lipp said. “FDA does a good job.” Some U.S. policies, such as the zero tolerance stand on foodborne pathogens, can muddy the waters, though, Lipp said. Part of the problem with the zero tolerance approach is that it gives a false sense of security when tests come up negative. “Zero tolerance is a little bit like playing lotto,” Lipp said. “The uncomfortable reality in food is that nothing is 100 percent.” Traceability requirements can also give the public a false sense of food safety security. While such codes can be helpful during a recall, Lipp said food safety is best achieved and maintained earlier in the production process. He said risk management is the best tool. “If a system is designed to be safe, it probably will be,” Lipp said. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)