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Food safety standards and regulations: A brief overview

The global food trade has enormous impact on both the health of populations and the economies of nations. Around 600 million people become ill and 420,000 die each year from food-borne diseases, according to WHO. Losses in productivity and trade and treatment costs amount to US$110billion annually, mainly in low and middle-income countries.

The global trade in food products has tripled in the last decade, reaching US$1.7 trillion by 2015. During this time, the global food supply chains have increased in complexity and a much greater range of products is traded internationally. Many developing countries have grown both their imports and exports and the diversity of foods available to even the poorest countries has increased greatly.

In the long, complex supply chains, it’s vital that food is kept safe, is of good quality and is suitable for consumption when it reaches the consumer. Food safety standards and regulations are essential to ensure food is safe at all points along supply chains in both international trade and within nations.

Trade is closely linked to food security, nutrition and food safety. It influences agricultural output, the variety, quality and safety of food and the composition of diets. Globally accepted standards enable trade by making it more transparent and efficient, giving confidence to all participants and allowing the smooth flow of food products between markets.

Codex Alimentarius

The most important global body for food standards is the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). It is the global reference point for food producers, processors, consumers, national food safety agencies and the international food trade. CAC is run jointly by the FAO and WHO and comprises:

  • 188 member countries
  • one member organisation (the EU) and 229 observers, which are intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations
  • and 16 UN agencies

CAC produces the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of harmonised international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice. The food safety measures are based on scientific principles to adapt to the evolving global food trade, the evolution of knowledge and changing consumer needs and preferences. The process involves specialists in multiple scientific areas, expert technical bodies, consumer organisations, production and processing industries, food control officials and traders.

A Codex standard has taken on average 4–5 years to develop, but, to adapt to the rapid pace of change, the CAC members now meet annually and evaluation is conducted in a continuous process managed by specialist committees.

Since its inception in 1963, the CAC has produced:

  • 223 food safety standards
  • 78 food safety guidelines
  • 53 food safety codes of practice

In addition, the CAC has set numerous maximum levels, based on scientific principles, for contaminants in food, food additives and pesticide residues.

The Codex has raised awareness of food safety in member countries and encouraged them to introduce new food legislation, adopt Codex-based standards and establish or strengthen agencies responsible for monitoring compliance with regulations. The standards, guidelines and codes of practice are advisory for member countries and they can choose to adopt them in their own national laws and regulations.

Global food safety handbook

The WTO encourages member states to use Codex standards as a benchmark for harmonisation in its Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures and Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). It sees the use of common standards as a way to avoid unnecessary costs for producers and consumers and to help prevent the creation of barriers to trade.

WTO, WHO and FAO also view food safety and trade as major contributors to helping nations achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They are key components to achieving several Sustainable Development Goals:

  • SDG 1 on poverty
  • SDG 2 on hunger, food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture
  • SDG 3 on healthy lives and wellbeing
  • SDG 8 on economic growth, employment and work
  • SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production
  • SDG 17 on global partnerships

Importance of technology

Since its founding in 1963, the CAC has adapted to reflect multiple changes affecting food safety. In April 2019, the FAO, WHO and WTO issued a joint statement at the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade to emphasise the need to constantly evolve food standards and regulations to keep up with rapid scientific developments and changes in production, trade, consumption and consumer demand.

The statement emphasised the importance of technology, especially the use of big data, for better detection, investigation, monitoring and surveillance tools and methods for food-safety risk assessment.

It noted that digital technologies provide opportunities to improve transparency and traceability in food supply chains, enhancing food safety and facilitating safe trade in food products.

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