Editor’s note: Joe Whitworth attended the forum earlier this week for Food Safety News and will be posting his coverage in the coming days.

As nations sell more and more food across international borders, food safety continues to be a cutting-edge issue. People are eager to try new foods and drinks from other countries, and with that comes an important economic ingredient: trade.

But always underlying this global reality is food safety.

“Access to safe food is essential,” said World Trade Organization Director Roberto Azevedo, as he opened the April 23-24 International Forum on Food Safety and Trade at WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. “It is a central element of public health and will be crucial in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.”

Adopted by world leaders in 2016, the “sustainable agenda,” calls for action by all countries to improve the lives of people everywhere. For food safety, this is a challenge because different countries have different ways of dealing with food safety. And that can create trade issues.

Even so, Azevedo was quick to point out that the WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement, which went into effect in 1995, has helped set the stage. It aims at protecting human, animal or plant life or health from certain risks.

Under the agreement, the WTO puts constraints on member-states’ policies pertaining to food safety, such as bacterial contaminants, pesticides, inspection and labelling. as well as animal and plant health, or phytosanitation, with respect to imported pests and diseases. 

The name of the game is science. The challenge is ensuring that consumers are being supplied with food that’s safe to eat. The organization also wants to ensure that strict health and safety regulations aren’t being used as a way to protect domestic producers from foreign competition.

Not to be forgotten in all of this, said Azevedo, is that WTO’s rules on food safety play a key role in helping governments protect their citizens from unsafe food and the illnesses that can occur from eating unsafe food, while at the same time maintaining timely supplies of safe and affordable food.

Moving with the times
Even though there’s already good work under way, Azevedo said in his prepared remarks that the WTO and its member nations also have to be ready to move with the times. 

“At present it seems that the world is changing before our eyes,” he said.

Pointing out that technological advances are revolutionizing the way we trade, he said that this has an impact on the way food safety measures are designed and enforced. 

“We must consider how to take advantage of the opportunities brought by technological progress in upholding or goals of food safety and public health,” he said.

To keep the focus on the goals of the forum, discussions during the event were divided into three sessions.

“There is huge potential here,” Azevedo said, primarily because new technologies can help gather and analyze data to manage food-safety risks.

In turn, electronic certification can be more reliable and efficient than keeping records on paper, a system that has proven itself as in dire need of improvement. Adopting these new technologies can in turn cut costs and help open the way for and  improve trade, said the director general.

In addition, these new technologies can also help interested parties get information on topics such as to what food safety and other requirements food exporters need to comply with.

“If you can access this information online, it can make a huge difference, especially for the smaller players, countries and companies,” he said.

But this doesn’t come without investment, and Azevedo acknowledged that “the digital divide is a big factor here.” Which is why the discussion among member nations must include plans of action aimed at making sure that everybody can take part “especially developing countries, as well as the smallest and most vulnerable ones,” 

“We need to make the digital revolution truly inclusive,” he said.

Food safety and trade
Pointing to WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement of 2013, Azevedo described it as a deal whose goal is to streamline border processes to help goods move more smoothly and more quickly.

“Reducing the time needed for goods to cross borders can make all the difference when your exports are perishable products,” he said.

However, it’s not just speed but also the safety of the imported products that need to be ensured. With that in mind the second session of the forum recognized that cooperation among different border agencies plays an important part in all of this. That’s why the session was designed to look at how to make sure that work on different fronts can go forward hand in hand in coordination.

For this to happen, said Azevedo, it’s necessary to have science-based food-safety measures; international standards and simplified procedures; and transparency and border agency cooperation.”

Regulatory frameworks
“More broadly,” said Azevedo, “we need to ensure that regulatory frameworks support all of this.” And that’s where the forum’s third session came into the picture. 

The discussion took a look at how food-safety regulatory systems can adapt to the new challenges in a “harmonized, transparent and timely manner,” said Azevedo. “We have to ensure that the international system continues to play a positive role in all these areas, and it helps our members deal with the challenges of the modern world. It is through this kind of engagement that we will manage future policy challenges and build a better future for all.”

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