Heightened hygiene measures put in place because the coronavirus pandemic will have positive effects on longer term food safety in the Asia-Pacific region, according to experts.

The COVID-19 outbreak has increased awareness of the need for personal hygiene, such as frequent handwashing, to avoid transmitting the virus, and has reminded everyone that similar good hygiene practices are always required in the preparation and handling of food.

Sridhar Dharmapuri, FAO senior food safety and nutrition officer, said COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through food.

“However, when we reach the end of lockdowns, countries will be looking to jumpstart their economies and increase trade, both domestic and external. Food safety and hygiene will be vital to ensure consumer confidence,” he said during a webinar.

The webinar was organized ahead of World Food Safety Day by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It attracted nearly 1,000 participants and included speakers from government, the private sector, academia and consumer groups.

Easier to educate
Frequent handwashing, sanitizers in homes, workplaces and on public transport have made hygiene and cleanliness a key focus against the pandemic. Webinar attendees heard that the more this new normal takes root the safer the food supply will become.

“Food control has two parts – the regulatory framework and standards and practices. Laws are difficult to enforce among the large populations in Asia. It is easier to educate and delegate the adoption of good practices to industry and consumers that promote food safety,” said Dharmapuri.

“It’s in everyone’s interest — it costs very little but can increase incomes, improve nutrition and make a real difference to people’s lives. Let’s use the good habits COVID-19 has forced us to cultivate to this end,” he added.

The FAO has urged countries in the Asia-Pacific region to continue with efforts to improve food safety along agricultural food chains. The largest global producers of primary commodities such as rice, pulses, oilseeds, millets, sugar, milk, fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs and pork are all in Asia.

Food is sold in a variety of ways including fresh food markets in urban and rural areas where farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers, supermarket chains and online portals.

Food safety as investment and not a cost
Masami Takeuchi, food safety officer at the FAO Regional Office, said the sub-theme for Food Safety Day this year was safe food in markets.

“Any food sold in any type of marketplace needs to be safe for human consumption, there can be no exceptions.”

India, like other countries in the region, has seen a jump in the use of app-based delivery services.

Vishal Bhatia, the CEO of India’s largest app-based food delivery service, SWIGGY, said the firm has focused on consumer education and raising awareness of restaurants and food service operators.

“Ensuring food safety should be seen as an investment and not as a cost,” he said.

China has made changes since the melamine scandal including delegating more responsibility to the private sector and making them more accountable.

Junshi Chen, chief scientific advisor to the China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment, said foodborne pathogens stemming from poor hygiene practices were the single biggest challenge.

He added fake news about food was posing a severe test to regulators, businesses and customers and consistent messaging was needed to combat it.

Singapore is heavily dependent on imports but is pushing local production through its 30 by 30 initiative.

Joanne Chan, director of the National Center for Food Science at Singapore Food Agency, said the private sector needed to have a role in food safety by implementing standards and practices while consumers of all ages must play their part when at home, the workplace and school.

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