So called fake news about food safety and COVID-19 has had a negative impact on consumption patterns and created anxiety among consumers in Asia Pacific.

Ahead of World Food Safety Day on June 7, 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), organized a webinar called: Food safety in the new normal.

The event dealt with the negative impact of what was described as fake news and rumors, which have particularly impacted the meat and dairy sectors due to an incorrect association with COVID-19. In some countries, dumping of imported fruits and vegetables has been observed. This was led by misinformation and caused unnecessary food waste.

Junshi Chen, chief scientific advisor to the China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment, told listeners misinformation was posing a severe test to regulators, businesses and customers.

Tackling the emerging issue
Experts said authorities need to monitor inaccurate reports and put out clarifications as soon as possible on social media showing that food does not transmit COVID-19 and no food protects against the virus. Fake news is an emerging issue that could undermine consumers’ trust in food safety systems. It also affects businesses but transparency and education could mitigate the problem.

In China, fake news is considered as the second major food safety issue after foodborne diseases. These rumors affect consumers’ trust in the food supply. The Chinese government asks experts to refute rumors from a scientific viewpoint. However, improving consumers’ knowledge on food safety remains the key method to reduce the impact.

The FAO, OIE, WFP and WHO also detailed ongoing food safety activities in the Asia Pacific region and three guest panelists from government, industry and research from China, India and Singapore shared their perspectives on food safety in the post-pandemic scenario. A total of 1,505 people from 84 countries registered to attend the webinar, which has more than 4,600 views.

While during the new normal, food safety has benefitted from an increased awareness on good practice on personal hygiene, in the future, regulatory frameworks with a long-term vision and that ensure consumers’ protection will need to be put in place, according to FAO.

New food consumption patterns have been observed during lockdown where people have relied on delivery services and information on social media. Consumers are more aware of the importance of food safety and quality, demanding better and safer food.

FAO work in Asia Pacific
Masami Takeuchi, food safety officer at the FAO, highlighted the agency’s activities in the region. One project aims to develop capacities to effectively participate in Codex Alimentarius. Ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are part of this project: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

FAO supports Codex Trust Fund projects in several countries, and will help new ones in nations such as Samoa and Solomon Islands. In past years, assistance was provided to Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines to improve imported food control systems.

Since 2017, an initiative on food safety indicators has been piloted within the region. Bhutan, China, Cook Islands and the Philippines participated in the project, which confirmed the effectiveness of setting specific national food safety indicators. In conjunction to this project, in 2019, Bhutan also introduced food safety culture.

Under the FAO country projects, Bangladesh is improving national food safety institutional capacities while Cambodia is developing standards for Good Agricultural Practices for national certification. Indonesia has assessed national food control systems. Thailand has finished a project to strengthen food safety and quality control of livestock products. Pakistan is piloting a national program on street food safety, while Mongolia is developing systems for food control management and it is piloting quality assurance options for the private sector.

Topics suggested for future webinars included COVID-19 related issues on food safety, risk assessment, food safety at home and risk based inspection.

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