Risk in food safety, the coronavirus pandemic, and the role of regulators were among topics discussed at a recent virtual event organized by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Sessions on day one of the first International Food Regulatory Analysis Conference covered use of risk models and data analysis, risk communication, an international perspective on food safety issues, food allergies, and food safety culture. Day two dealt with the impact of the pandemic, emerging risks, regulatory response, and new trends and technologies.

Mark Booth, CEO of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), said he increasingly sees tension around international supply chains, the dependence on them and how easily they have been disrupted during the past year.

“We need to ensure our own countries having the supply chain protected doesn’t come at the expense of international cooperation and ensuring nobody gets left behind. Even though we’ve had this global pandemic, our experience here is that things don’t stand still, technology is increasing even more rapidly,” he said during a panel debate.

“One of the key things to be watchful of coming out of COVID, is governments around the world are looking for food to be a pathway out in terms of economic recovery. One of the temptations would be to start looking at how we deregulate. I think there will be huge pressure put on us all. The challenge for us as regulators is how we balance that with the need to ensure evidence based standards for food safety.

“From the Australia and New Zealand perspective, there is a lot of discussion around agility and moving to outcome-based measures and standards whilst ensuring such methods are safe because it only takes one problem to emerge and we will all start running back into more prescriptive ways of doing it. I think there is support and willingness but we need to look carefully at how we do it.”

Codex perspective
Tom Heilandt, secretary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, said there is more standardization now than there used to be.

“Codex is about setting standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade. We also need to adapt our rules to change because if you set the rules once and never adapt those that are outdated, you stagnate or are counter-productive. Some resets come by accident or a crisis. We seem to need triggers for transformations, we are seeing a lot of energy now to transform our food systems before it is too late,” he said.

“It has been said that food safety is where agriculture and human health meet. I would say Codex food standards are where science and innovation meet politics. Science and innovation have given safe and nutritious food to many more people than before but not to all yet.”

Codex standards are voluntary and it normally takes four years to set one.

“We are working in a dynamic environment with the pandemic, climate change, innovations, consumer concerns and behavior changing such as food ordering online, aggressive marketing and the UN Food Systems Summit coming up,” said Heilandt.

“Change is possible as we have shown in Codex by going virtual with meetings. The pandemic has brought new rules and behaviors, some of them are very useful especially regarding hygiene but it has also brought new conspiracy theories and science fatigue in large parts of the population, so we need to communicate better about science and the work we do.”

Opportunities and accelerated trends
Steve Wearne, vice chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, said for many regulators, the pandemic means they have been unable to continue with physical inspection as the primary way of audit and verification.

“Out of necessity they have adopted means of remote and virtual audit that can provide an adequate level of assurance on the safety and authenticity of foodstuffs. We now have the opportunity to reflect on and determine how remote approaches can be an effective part of our toolbox for audit and verification.”

Wearne, who is also director of global affairs at the FSA, said the good news is food safety is enjoying an increased profile internationally.

“We should welcome this scrutiny on our work but also recognize expectations are high. The integrity of global food supply chain went under unprecedented and sustained pressure and the pandemic has accelerated existing trends in how food is sold and consumed,” he said.

“We have to remember the impacts of the pandemic are not distributed equally within or between countries. Consumers in low and middle income countries are bearing the brunt of price increases, some of which will be attributable to other factors but some will be to do with the impacts of the pandemic. COVID is making existing inequalities worse and we first need to understand them.”

The conference earlier this month had about 1,000 people signed up. It was originally planned for March 2020 but was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of the EU and closer to INFOSAN
Emily Miles, FSA chief executive, said the event was timely with the global food system facing a complex and interconnected set of challenges.

“We’ve got climate change, the public health concerns around non-communicable illnesses like obesity and diabetes, and the economic challenge countries are facing because of the impact of COVID,” she said.

“It means the way food is supplied and the types of food available will change and it will force consumers to think and behave differently. We as regulators are responsible for making sure food is safe and it is what it says it is. We need to make sure our work makes it as easy as possible for businesses to do the right thing but also for consumers to do the right thing for their families.”

Miles also spoke about the UK leaving the European Union.

“The FSA has taken on new responsibilities that the EU used to do on behalf of the UK. We now have to do the risk assessments of novel foods, we receive the applications from business, weigh up the risks and put advice to ministers on whether products are safe and should be authorized for consumption,” she said.

“We’ve also increased our engagement with INFOSAN to strengthen our post-Brexit incident handling capability. These efforts make sure we make the best use of these international networks and they are going to be vital to us in the post-Brexit era.”

Responding to COVID-19 has been one of the greatest challenges faced by any country in peace time, said Miles.

“The UK food industry and its regulators have learned a lot from the pressures in the past year. Our view at the FSA is the food system did prove resilient. It was able to maintain supply and safety in difficult circumstances including when huge amounts of product intended for the catering and hospitality end of the market were being converted into things used in retail or food parcels. There were a couple of bumps on the road but that worked,” she said.

“The post-pandemic recovery represents an opportunity for us to apply those lessons to become a better regulator. COVID-19 has also shown us in some parts of the population there are levels of distrust toward the information they receive from government and other official sources. In order to be heard we have to listen, we have to understand the communities and consumers and their perspectives to understand how they are making sense of the world.”

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