Set the standard

1 October 2020

Food safety concerns may be crowded out of the regulatory spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic, but they remain a key strand of EU policy-making in the near future. John Browning looks at how standards are set to change.

Food safety can often be taken for granted in developed countries. In Europe, the US and many other countries, consumers trust that the food they buy is safe to eat and that, if a danger to health were to arise, it would be quickly spotted and dealt with. In an increasingly complex global supply chain, however, trust is built on the vigilance and foresight of regulators.

Those regulators must constantly review standards in light of emerging risks, stretched supply chains and growing pressure on the food industry to feed an ever-growing population.

WHO estimates that a staggering $110 billion is lost each year in productivity and medical expenses, arising from unsafe food in low and middle-income countries. Furthermore, it notes that unsafe food – containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances – causes more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancer. Each year, an estimated 600 million people – almost one in 10 of the world’s population – fall ill after eating contaminated food, with 420,000 deaths and the loss of 33 million healthy life years.

WHO also notes that food safety, nutrition and security are closely linked, as unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition – particularly affecting infants, young children, the elderly and the sick. Children under five carry 40% of the food-borne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year. Food-borne diseases also impede socio-economic development by putting extra strain on healthcare systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade.

More important than ever before

Risks in the food supply chain come in many forms, and regulations have to be sufficiently robust to address them all. Yet the risk profile is always changing. As the world’s population increases, agriculture and animal production has become more intensified and industrialised to meet the rising demand for food. The result is a greater burden on food producers and handlers who are responsible for food safety. Any failure at a local level can quickly spread through the global supply chain.

During the past 10 years, serious food-borne disease outbreaks have occurred on every continent. Supply chains now cross many national borders, so the ability of regulators, governments, producers and consumers to work together is more important than ever before. Nevertheless, WHO points out that the costs and risks to public health associated with food-borne diseases have frequently been underestimated.

In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, public health is certainly at the top of the agenda, yet food safety standards rarely become a public concern. They do sometimes bubble up to the surface, however, as they have in the UK as it prepares for its departure from the EU. Suddenly, the British public has become aware of the possibility of its government lowering standards to accommodate food imports from the US, for example, that would not have been compliant with EU law.

The EU is constantly reviewing and updating its standards in light of its long-term goals, as well as short-term issues that give rise to health concerns in the global food supply chain. Its commitment to achieving its sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030, in which tackling hunger is a key pillar, have spurred the EU on to elevate the importance of food safety and urge governments to make it a public health priority.
“European citizens expect the peace of mind that comes with access to healthcare, safe food to eat and protection against epidemics and diseases.”
EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides

Science, standards and sustainability

The European Commission (EC) aims to assure a high level of food safety, as well as animal and plant health, within the EU through coherent farm-tofork measures – coupled with adequate monitoring – while ensuring an effective internal market. This programme is intended to control the safety of the entire agricultural food chain.

Food safety policy is shaped, to a large extent, by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), an EU agency founded back in 2002 to provide independent scientific advice, and report on both existing and emerging risks associated with the food chain. Efsa’s remit covers all matters that have a direct or indirect impact on food and feed safety, including animal health and welfare, plant health, plant protection and nutrition. It supports the EC and EU member states in their risk management decisions, as well as communicating key messages to the public.

Among Efsa’s recent priorities is the exploration of any potential link between Covid-19 and the food supply chain. It has closely monitored the spread of the pandemic and has found no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus.

“Experiences from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), show that transmission through food consumption did not occur,” said Efsa’s chief scientist, Marta Hugas, in March 2020. “At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that coronavirus is any different in this respect.”

A central role

Another of its ongoing projects is the distribution of plant-pest survey cards to gather information in-line with current international standards – such as up-to-date information on a pest’s distribution, its host range, its biology and risk factors, as well as available detection and identification methods – as part of a systematic surveillance programme to protect Europe’s plant life. It has also recently published two pilot assessments covering the risks of pesticide residues in food to humans.

The EU’s current commissioner for health and food safety, Stella Kyriakides, who works closely with Efsa, has understandably been focused on the Covid-19 pandemic in recent months, working on getting member states open for travel and tourism once the virus is under control. Once the pandemic has subsided, however, it won’t be long before food safety is once again near the top of the agenda.

In her introductory speech at the end of 2019, when seeking approval for her role as commissioner, she stated, “European citizens expect the peace of mind that comes with access to healthcare, safe food to eat and protection against epidemics and diseases. They deserve this. We have some of the world’s highest standards on animal and plant health, and the most affordable, accessible and high-quality health systems to deliver on these expectations.”

She also noted forthcoming initiatives in which food safety will play a central role, saying, “The green deal is an opportunity to address these challenges holistically. It places good health and sustainable, nutritious, affordable food under a single policy umbrella.”

Europe’s green deal

The European green deal is a road map for making the EU’s economy sustainable. It aims to turn climate and environmental challenges into opportunities across all policy areas.

“The atmosphere is warming and the climate is changing with each passing year,” notes the introduction to the new initiative. “One million of the eight million species on the planet are at risk of being lost. Forests and oceans are being polluted and destroyed. The European green deal is a response to these challenges. It is a new growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050, and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”

The green deal has already seen proposals for a European climate law to ensure a climate neutral Europe by 2050, as well as the adoption of the European industrial strategy. In May 2020, the presentation of the Farm to Fork strategy took place, as part of a wide-ranging rethink of policies for clean energy supply across the economy, industry, production and consumption, large-scale infrastructure, transport, food and agriculture, construction, taxation and social benefits.

“It will address every single step of the food chain and reach every actor within it,” noted Kyriakides at the end of 2019.

Farm to Fork represents the latest step in designing what the EU calls ‘a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system’, which it hopes will become the global standard for sustainability. It addresses not only the effects of food production on the environment – through air, water and soil pollution, as well as the potential loss of biodiversity and the consumption of natural resources – but also the quality and safety of the food sold in EU member states.

As it gains momentum, this initiative will certainly have an effect on specific regulations affecting food producers across the globe, so the industry will have to keep a close eye on standards as they take shape in the years ahead.

The price of a poor food safety regime

In 2018, the World Bank produced a report on the economic burden of foodborne diseases. The key findings of its report included:

  • unsafe food cost $110 billion to low and middle-income economies, in lost productivity and medical expenses each year
  • the total productivity loss associated with food-borne diseases in low and middle-income countries is estimated to cost $95.2 billion per year
  • the annual cost of treating food-borne illnesses is estimated at $15 billion
  • instead of the traditional regulator-regulated approach focused on enforcement and penalties, government efforts should focus on incentivising and facilitating the delivery of safe production, processing and distribution of food.

Source: The World Bank

Farm to fork

The measures in the EU’s farm to fork programme include:

  • national enforcement authorities performing controls on farms
  • border controls for important animals, plants and specific foodstuffs from outside the EU
  • controls during transport within the EU
  • controls on food-processing plants, wholesalers, supermarkets, retailers and restaurants.

The controls check for:

  • hormones
  • chemical residues
  • bacterial or viral contamination
  • overall hygiene
  • compliant labelling
  • proper refrigeration
  • specific animal and plant health requirements
  • animal welfare
  • fraud.

Source: Farm to Fork

$ 100 billion

The estimated amount lost each year in productivity and medical expenses, arising from unsafe food in low and middle-income countries.

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