TORONTO — Food safety professionals were encouraged to have a “stocktaking moment” during the opening session of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) symposium here.

Delivering the Ivan Parkin lecture, Sarah Cahill, a long-time IAFP member and senior food standards officer at the Codex Alimentarius Commission, said people should take the time to look at things through a different lens considering the many new challenges to food safety, to see if enough is being done.

These challenges include climate change, new food sources and production systems, food waste, food availability, and cell-based foods. Some of these areas have not been looked at in terms of food standard setting before.

It is the first time the event has been held in Canada since 2006. About 3,100 attendees from 58 countries are expected, which is more than 2022 in Pittsburgh, PA.

Cahill’s talk covered the drivers behind food standards, their development, their impact and a look to the future.

“Everyone in the room knows the importance of why we have standards but despite setting standards we still run into problems. If we are to be successful, we need to get everyone on board, no matter their role in the supply chain. Food safety is still a bit blurry for some. If someone needs a target in terms of food safety, standards provide a good place to start and allow people to set up a framework to ensure food is safe,” she said.

Standards are part of all of our lives, whether it is the standards we expect the products and services we use to adhere to, or the standards we set for ourselves, according to Cahill.

Hundreds of guidelines and codes of practice, and thousands of quantitative standards like maximum levels for contaminants and food additives, and maximum residue limits for pesticides and veterinary drugs in food have been developed with the help of Codex.

Ensuring a standard is used
If the science is available, standards can be developed when needed, especially in response to food safety crises. A standard for melamine in food or the code of practice to minimize the risk posed by Cronobacter in powdered infant formula are examples from Codex.

There are five key elements to building a useful and successful standard: clarity, engagement, the science, the expected outcome and having patience, said Cahill. 

“Science is fundamental to setting standards but there are occasions where even science doesn’t get us across the line. I’m sure you’ve all heard, if you want to move fast, move alone but if you want to move far, move together. We can set loads of standards but they need to be implemented and there are a whole new set of challenges associated with implementation,” she said.

Standards provide a basis for addressing challenges but don’t work by themselves. Another thing to consider is the broader context of digitalization, as not everyone is at the same level, added Cahill.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and Jose Emilio Esteban, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, and former chair of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene, was one of the presenters at an event earlier this month in Geneva marking the milestone.

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