Food safety refers to the handling, preparation and storage of food in a way that minimises the risk of individuals becoming sick from foodborne illness. This includes a number of procedures that should be followed to avoid potentially severe health hazards. Moreover, food safety emphasises the importance of nutrition on changes to human behaviour.
Why do we need safe food since we have already achieved food security and zero hunger?
We need food safety to protect:
• Export market consumers
• The agro-food sector
• The economy
• The tourism sector
We all are realising that it will be impossible to achieve the above without food safety. Food security and zero hunger directly relate to food safety. According to, "The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World," a 2018 Food and Agriculture Organization report, 821 million people still suffer from hunger. It is estimated that 151 million children under five years of age are chronically malnourished – stunted – and over 50 million are acutely malnourished – wasted.
In 2018, the World Food Day theme was, "Zero hunger by 2030 is possible, our action is our future." Zero hunger means working together to ensure everyone, everywhere, has access to the safe, healthy and nutritious food they need. Food security simply refers to the availability of food, accessibility of food and use of food. However, without safe food, food security and zero hunger are impossible to achieve. Access to safe food is a basic individual right.
What are the consequences of unsafe food?
• Food Poisoning
• No food security
• Food contamination and customer complaints
• Legal action and risk of closure
• Pest infestation
• Food waste
• Loss of business and profit
Food safety is a global issue that demands an integrated, global response. It has no geographical boundaries since sometimes it is impossible to protect the entry of unsafe food onto a local market. So, how can we start to look forward? This is why we need to change our traditional approach – from reactive to preventive – throughout the food chain via a food safety management system.
This is pretty similar to the food value chain approach. Our goal is to ensure food is free of: pesticides, industrial chemicals, unwanted micro-organisms, and contaminants. Whether we call it food safety management systems, a food value chain approach, or a market system approach; the key is to strengthen each and every link in the complex process of food reaching a consumer. This encompasses everything from the way it is grown or raised, to how it is: collected, processed, packaged, stored, transported, sold, distributed, served, and consumed.
Which came first - the chicken or the egg?
Conventionally, the food safety system has targeted intermediary stages of the food chain – when food is processed from its raw state. This is instead of the initial or final stages on the food chain – where food is grown or consumed.
However, a spate of outbreaks of food-borne illness have highlighted the fact that many breaches of food safety originate from the start of the food chain.
Outbreaks of BSE – mad cow disease – for example, are linked to contaminated feed. Many incidents regarding this have happened across the globe and seriously damaged consumer confidence.
Consumers have the right to know what they are eating and where it comes from.
At the source
We already have many good standards for safety and hygiene in the food processing industries. However, we need to pay more attention to hygiene on farms and animal's health – including what livestock is fed and how it is managed – to avoid contaminating animal products and potentially transmitting illnesses to humans. We need to strengthen every aspect of the food chain. One weak link, especially near the beginning, can corrupt a whole food chain.
In developing countries almost two million children die each year from diarrhoea, caused mainly by microbe-contaminated food and water. The food value chain approach extends to the very end of the food chain – the consumer – by advocating for training and education on the safe storage, preparation and consumption of food. A problem that happens within national borders might spread outside its borders and become more serious. We need global measures just as we need to strengthen the whole food chain. FAO is advocating for harmonized international standards to ensure safe food globally and breach trade barriers.
How together we can ensure food safety
Sharing the responsibility of providing safe food to all players in the food and agriculture sector – from food producers and processors to retailers and households – is an inclusive approach where all stakeholders must play their role correctly to act in a proactive manner. No one may sleep!
Government must take the lead by creating a national food safety management framework through risk assessments as well as drafting: acts, rules, regulations, customer-oriented processes (COP) and support oriented processes (SOP) – bearing the WTO agreement in mind. The government should have a strategic plan and roadmap to achieve its plan, communication strategy and training strategy. In addition, the government should develop: a monitoring plan, surveillance, sampling, testing and analysis program for food businesses. All other parties should coordinate in a collaborative manner.
Primary producers, the food industry and government agencies should have: a common understanding of basic food safety, a sanitation control program, hazard analysis, good hygienic practices, good animal husbandry practices, proper agriculture practices, fitting distribution practices, appropriate manufacturing practices, an approved control program, modern food safety technology, codex standards, private international and regional food safety standards, plus national food safety legislation.
A special program must be established for safe street food vending and home-based catering services for the general public. The United Nations, international and local non-governmental organizations, and development partners should continue their financial and technical support to strengthen the food safety management system. The education and training institute needs to launch courses on food safety management systems, provide experience in the field for food producers, plus have industry and regulatory internships. Laboratory services should come under proper laboratory practices and an accreditation system.
Consumers, consumer associations and civil society shall raise their voices to create the demand for safe food. Alongside creating the demand for safe food, they must follow some mandatory practices to make food safer. They have to change their behaviour from bad practices to good practices for example, following five keys for safer food and personal hygiene practices. The FAO and other international agencies – like the United States Agency for International Development, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Japan International Cooperation Agency JICA etc. – are advocating for the approaches including the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).
The approaches establish basic principles for farming, including soil and water management; crop and animal production, storage, and processing; plus waste disposal. Also, the FAO is supporting all its member countries by providing food safety and quality related standards, guidelines, COP, and SOP. These are the reference documents for any country and also, any member country may adopt those standards, guidelines, COP, and SOP.
The aim of the food chain approach – which incorporates improved standards and practices through proper compliance of food safety legislation – is to ensure that the food chain becomes more transparent. This could help prevent, rather than treat, national and global food crises.
The author is a food safety scientist