Increased globalization of the food supply means people worldwide are more exposed to different hazards, according to a United Nations agency.

In a brochure on the future of food safety, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) said this is of particular concern for countries that rely heavily on food imports as preventable foodborne diseases continue to affect millions of people annually.

Food is produced and processed in larger volumes and distributed over greater distances than ever before. Expansion in agricultural trade has increased the chances that unsafe food produced in one country can affect consumers in another. A growing challenge is that authorities in charge of official controls have no direct oversight over the production process of trading partners.

Complying with national food regulation requirements in export markets can be challenging for smaller producers in developing countries and emerging economies. Many developing countries import a significant share of their population’s food supply. Some – such as the Pacific islands – rely almost entirely on imports to ensure food security.

Higher volumes of imported foods, together with the diversification of origin and growing complexity of the technologies used for traditional monitoring approaches, means intermittent inspections at borders are no longer adequate, according to FAO.

Change from reactive to proactive
Chemical residues and microbiological contamination continue to pose public health risks and lead to trade disruptions with substantial economic and social costs. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and recalls can have wide-reaching consequences and impact on consumer confidence.

FAO recognizes the cost ramifications of unsafe food go beyond human suffering. It hampers socioeconomic development, overloads healthcare systems and compromises economic growth and trade. Food safety threats cause a burden on economies from disruptions or restrictions in global and regional agri-food trade, loss of food and associated income and wasted natural resources.

Global challenges are transforming the way food is produced, marketed, consumed and thought about. There is a growing population and increased food demands, adverse impacts of environmental degradation, climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, conflict and socio-economic inequities. The world is facing an unprecedented convergence of pressures from socio-economic, environmental and political fronts.

The shift in food safety from “reaction and response“ to “prediction and prevention” requires structured approaches to collecting and analyzing intelligence for early identification of emerging issues.

FAO said it works with members and international experts to provide guidance for developing and emerging countries so the best available evidence is used to inform food safety decisions. This guidance is tailored to country needs, especially those that may be data-poor or have less mature control systems.

Mali improved its decision-making for food safety by adopting a risk analysis framework. Officials requested FAO’s advice and a two-year capacity development program began in 2014. Training was provided on how to use national data to prioritize risks and optimize their management.

Decisions by food safety risk managers often require balancing food safety priorities with resources and selecting the most appropriate intervention to minimize risks. They need to influence high-level decisions based on the best available data and evidence to prioritize food safety in their countries.

FAO and the World Health Organization provide scientific advice to support development of modern food control systems by national authorities such as whole genome sequencing for epidemiological surveillance for foodborne pathogens. Surveillance systems allow authorities to better understand major food safety risks and refocus prevention efforts.

Armenian project begins
Meanwhile, a two-year project strengthening food safety and animal health has started in Armenia.

Challenges exist in the country in compliance with international regulations and standards, risk assessment capability and risk based approaches in food control systems.

“Food safety means having diligent producers providing safe food, consumers sufficiently informed of their rights, and an inspection system supporting food businesses not to harm consumers,” said Georgi Avetisyan, head of the Food Safety Inspectorate Body.

The Food Safety Inspectorate Body is the main institution for official control and management of food safety, animal and plant health.

The FAO project will assist on identification and improving the evidence and data sources on food safety, animal and plant health risks and implementing risk assessments to determine food safety priorities. It will help develop controls and risk management to avoid unsafe food and movement of animals. Capacities of business operators on food safety management systems and inspection services on risk categorization are going to be improved.

Mary Kenny, food safety and consumer protection officer at FAO, said the project will help Armenia use available resources to target issues of greatest concern.

“The project will support the food safety inspectorate body to achieve its vision of strong and effective institutional frameworks, tailored decisions based on evidence, and well-functioning work processes. “The one health approach will be applied to assess and manage risks which may occur at the interface between humans-animals and plants,” she said.

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