Codex standards play a vital role in ensuring food safety, according to the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety.

José Emilio Esteban said standards set in Codex are science-based and the science is applicable worldwide.

“They are established at every stage in the food production process. So they cover pathogens and contaminants as well as safe food handling practices for those that are growing, processing, packaging, distributing, and preparing your food. The reason we follow Codex standards is everybody in the world is entitled to the same quality and safety of food. It is important that the standards we develop are applied to large and small producers and to make sure everybody has the same target when it comes to the safety of food,” he said.

Several webinars were held this week discussing food safety standards as part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Health Talks around World Food Safety Day on June 7.

Esteban, a previous chair of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene, gave examples of how Codex work is used in the United States.

“The USDA worked with the EPA and FDA in establishing the national residue program to conduct surveillance for chemical residues in meat, poultry, and egg products in FSIS. We take the input from Codex on the allowable levels and that informs the amounts we will be allowing or not in our food supply. It also helps us shape our response and establish our risk-ranking models to manage those hazards adequately,” he said.

“Another example is Codex labeling standards, I can’t see anything more important for consumers than to have accurately labeled products for them to make decisions on how to handle, manage, and what they are getting to put on the table for their families. Those standards for labeling allow consumers to have confidence in products that are imported and exported. If we follow Codex guidelines and make regulatory decisions based on those principles we would be saving lives.”

Salmonella and cultured meat
Esteban said the USDA is data-driven. He cited figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show the U.S. has roughly 1.4 million illnesses attributed to Salmonella each year. About 23 percent of that is attributed to the consumption of poultry products.

“We are in the midst of completely reassessing how we address Salmonella control in poultry. Over the next few months, you’ll see a lot of activity in this direction. We are trying to minimize the impact and come up with a new framework. Ultimately, the responsibility of producing safe food is that of the producers, the government is there to verify the food is safe,” he said.

Upcoming cultured meat developments were also highlighted by Esteban.

“There are other countries that have already done it but for us, this is a gigantic shift. It’s important to realize there is a place for traditional food, a place for standard food, and now there will be a place for novel types of foods. We need to make sure we offer food security for the world. The bottom line and what drives me every day when I wake up is everybody is entitled to safe food and we have to work as hard as we can to ensure everybody gets safe and nutritious food every day.”

WFP: Joining food safety and food security pieces
Virginia Siebenrok, from the World Food Programme, said the agency daily walks a line balancing food safety and food security.

“In emergency response, we don’t know where the emergency will hit and when. We operate by buying a lot of food with a long shelf life and placing it in hubs across the globe so it is ready in case of an emergency. As you can imagine, it is very tricky to buy these foods without knowing the final recipient country. When bringing in food, one of the main risks is you are going into an area you have never been before and you have little contact with the end consumer. You need to make decisions quickly in a crisis situation. Standards play a big role in this, we don’t have aligned standards around the globe, not even regionally often, so this is challenging,” she said.

“We have a very long and fragmented supply chain. One example is a specialized nutritious food that has around 18 months of shelf life. It is produced in the U.S. and transported from Houston overseas to one of our hubs in Togo, this trip takes a month. When it reaches this port it is transported to a warehouse and then by truck inland over 20 days and three countries until it reaches the final destination. You can imagine the challenges we have in terms of transportation, maintaining shelf life, nutritional aspects, and the trade barriers we may encounter.”

Inclusion of fresher foods
In the case of airdrops, food is selected based on its resilience and robustness of packaging.

“We rely a lot on grains and pulses but we also have nutritional foods specially designed to meet the needs of the society we are operating in, either to treat or prevent acute malnutrition in pregnant women or children. Recently we have been moving towards having operations with fresh foods, which brings a different type of challenge. We have shifted a lot from buying just internationally from large suppliers to local suppliers and in this setting, we rely on local standards,” said Siebenrok.

She also spoke about malnutrition, giving an example of a peanut-based peanut. 

“As you may know allergen regulations are varied and not aligned, so the challenge of producing this food which is highly specialized and normally produced in a few specific locations, shipping across the globe and still ensuring we have the right labeling and are applying the correct regulations demands a lot of discussions with local government, research, and many resources to ensure the writing of every specification,” she said.

“Another big problem is school meals. The main challenge here is we need to work locally with the quality and safety of the preparation of the food. Where is it procured? Is the local regulatory framework strong enough to allow for this to be safe? This also includes foods from indigenous communities.” 

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