Most countries in the Western Pacific do not have regulations to control food safety in novel foods, according to a survey.

Many pointed to the absence of national regulatory frameworks that could be applied to alternative proteins and the need for discussions on the rules and risk assessment for novel foods. They also said inspectors need to be trained on novel technologies to produce alternative food proteins.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in the Western Pacific held a workshop as the first step toward supporting member states to regulate the production, marketing and consumption of local and imported plant-based and cultivated meat products. A survey was conducted during the event.

Nine nations said they did not have a specific regulation for novel foods. Four said it was possible to implement legislation for alternative proteins-based food in the next two years.

Australia, China and Singapore did have novel food laws. They covered food safety, risk assessment, controls during production and marketing, and communication and food labeling.

Market situation

Developing foods based on alternative proteins such as microbial fermentation, plant-based or cultivated meat could help tackle issues raised by the current animal protein supply chain such as sustainability, efficiency and safety.

While agents such as Salmonella and E. coli should not be present in cultured meat, there are other risks and pathogens could be introduced during the processing, storage and distribution stages.

Production and consumption of alternative proteins is increasing but the lack of a definition and uncertainty represents a challenge for food safety authorities.

Fifty-two participants attended the first day and 84 people attended the second day of the event in Manila, Philippines in May 2021.

They included national food safety agencies, International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) officials and Codex Alimentarius contact points from nations in the Western Pacific Region. These were Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mongolia, Niue, the Philippines, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

The survey found 68 percent of 99 participants had tried alternative proteins and 62 percent of 34 people would include them as part of their diet. Food safety aspects were cited as the main reason for people not including them.

Countries expected WHO to provide technical support, training, publish guidelines and standards, hold events, and promote harmonization of standards.

Safe food in traditional markets
Another event has looked at risk in traditional food markets in Asia Pacific.

The virtual meeting in September 2021 was organized by the World Health Organization regional offices for South-East Asia and for the Western Pacific. 

It provided member state representatives with country experiences, communications and community engagement strategies, risk assessment and management strategies, and scientific evidence related to risk mitigation in traditional food markets.

Officials at national authorities from 28 countries including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Cook Islands, Fiji, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vanuatu, Tonga and Vietnam attended.

Francesco Branca, director at the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, said traditional markets are an important source of livelihood and of quality food for many in low- and middle-income countries but there can be a food safety problems with products sold. He said risks can be mitigated by better infrastructure, design and placement of markets.

At a breakout session, food safety was discussed. Among challenges identified were regulation is controlled by different agencies; the lack of guidelines and standard operating procedures to implement food inspection programs; limited laboratory capacities, including a lack of trained officials; the need for enforcement of regulations; and limited coordination among market regulators and managers.

Recommendations to tackle the issues included the need for food safety legislation designed for food markets, implementation of traceability systems to ensure the quality and determine the origin of products, and development of guidance to carry out capacity-building for risk communication.

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