People have to learn how to talk differently about food as it is not an accident it is safe, according to an FAO expert.

Markus Lipp, senior food safety officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said there is a lot of work behind the scenes on food safety, during a webinar this past week.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) hosted the event on the role of public-private partnerships in food safety ahead of World Food Safety Day on June 7. The theme for this year is “Safe food now for a healthy tomorrow” and a guide can be found here.

Assumption food is safe
Lipp said people need to talk about the fact that food safety cannot be taken for granted.

“It is the diligent work of many people from the farmers to us in the kitchen when we prepare food that keeps it safe. We need to make conscious choices and it requires effort and commitment to work together. In industry food safety is often labeled as a pre-competitive area,” he said.

“We have to talk about it in an informed way, not in a way that scares people away. Not ‘oh my God here are the 50 million ways you could have died today and it’s just because of me that you survived.’ In a way that helps consumers make informed decisions and gives them the feeling of control that they can do something.”

Food is different from consumer packaged goods because it is part of communication and has deep cultural relevance, said Lipp.

“We have to learn how to talk differently about food and ensure all the other people who don’t understand as much know it is not like other consumer products out there. It requires good governance systems, food is heavily traded internationally and nationally and travels many miles before it reaches our tables.”

There is no food safety indicator in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set in 2015 and this could be because there is an assumption food is safe, said Lipp.

“That is a luxury we have in developed, high-income countries where we can go to the local supermarket and just rely on the fact that there is oversight from government, governance in the industry and legal instruments suitable to protect ourselves or punish those if they fail to protect us. This is not the case in many low- and middle-income countries,” he said.

“We know the food safety burden is huge. We know food safety is critical for nutrition. Where it is a chronic problem children will end up stunted, they cannot grow and develop. Food safety is critical for many SDG’s yet it’s too often assumed to be part of them.

“Food is a high throughput area, it is constantly produced, has a short shelf life in many cases and is constantly consumed. Huge amounts of material is moving through the supply chain. That is an extreme challenge in procuring the incoming and distributing the outgoing material and making sure all the processes are robust because food needs to be safe today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

Bringing industry and regulators together
Sarah Cahill, senior food standards officer with the Codex Secretariat, told participants there are 188 member countries in Codex and 239 observers.

“This allows us to ensure Codex standards are linked into the reality of producing safe food. It allows us to build standards and texts that are based on sound science and are useable for those who need them,” she said.

“Right now we have guidelines being developed for the assessment and use of voluntary third-party assurance programs. Engagement with observers is critical to ensure the outputs are practical, relevant to today’s world and they resonate with government and the private sector.

“We know food safety is everybody’s business but maybe we don’t know what everyone is doing about it. While food safety needs to happen every day, having this day gives us that opportunity to remind others, to talk about the issues and make sure everybody knows how much work is required to make food safe every day for a healthy tomorrow.”

Anne Gerardi, GFSI senior project manager at the Consumer Goods Forum, said GFSI’s role in Codex is to help bring a risk- and science-based approach from industry.

“We think the public and private dialogue is key. You can’t regulate what you don’t understand and how the businesses are working. We created this government to business platform five years ago. . . to try to address common challenges with regulators,” she said.

“We work on data sharing, capability building and we held a seminar on how we can use new technologies in audit and inspection activities in the time of COVID and for the future. It is better when the industry understands the role of regulators in food safety. Why they are here to do their work as national food control systems.”

The data dilemma
Maria Virginia Siebenrok, head of food safety and quality at the World Food Programme, said data issues are part of the organization’s daily struggle in some of the places it operates.

“The lack of data does not help in terms of moving forward and making decisions. I would highlight two things to help build that data. Have resources and projects in specific contexts and having conversations at local level and engaging the right stakeholders so governments, farmers or manufacturers is important,” she said.

“Where we work, this has been shown to have an effect on generating data. We are afraid of sharing data as we don’t know what will be done with it so having transparency and clarity and utilizing success stories is important.”

Erica Sheward, GFSI director at the Consumer Goods Forum, said data is a big issue for GFSI, which is holding its annual conference from March 23 to 25.

“We are talking all the time about what we don’t know and how with better information how much more we could do. This area of data sharing is traditionally quite sensitive. There are lots of challenges for business around sharing their data as everyone will know and understand,” she said.

“We are slowly building some momentum in the business community to enable them to see the value of sharing things in a small way with the regulatory community, other businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). It has a massive impact in terms of the outcome. The questions around targeting and where the real challenges are, our business community knows the answers to those questions in their own supply chains. They know where they are facing difficulties.”

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