Ensuring food safety and quality

04 November 20207 min reading

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us more aware of the critical importance of food safety. It's not an exaggeration to say there is no food security without food safety. Improving food safety is an essential element of improving food security, which exists when populations have access to sufficient and healthy food. Pests and diseases damage crops and animals, and reduce the quantity and quality of food available for humans. Using safe and effective methods to control these losses in production, processing and storage helps make food systems more sustainable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work. The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating: tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty, while the number of undernourished people, currently estimated at nearly 690 million, could increase by up to 132 million by the end of the year.

The pandemic has been affecting the entire food system and has laid bare its fragility. Border closures, trade restrictions and confinement measures have been preventing farmers from accessing markets, including for buying inputs and selling their produce, and agricultural workers from harvesting crops, thus disrupting domestic and international food supply chains and reducing access to healthy, safe and diverse diets. The pandemic has decimated jobs and placed millions of livelihoods at risk. As breadwinners lose jobs, fall ill and die, the food security and nutrition of millions of women and men are under threat, with those in low-income countries.

In the COVID-19 crisis, the major grain importers countries like Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco and the Philippines are steping up efforts to top up their grain reserves to guarantee their people’s food security. China is set to buy the most wheat in a quarter century and has already booked large amounts from the U.S. and France. Demand is also emerging in unusual places like Pakistan, which is poised to become a net importer. Many nations want to bolster reserves to protect against any coronavirus-related supply disruptions. While global stockpiles are at a record high, inventories in major exporters are near a six-year low, partly because of strong imports.

During the pandemic, another issue that has increased in importance along with food security is food safety. Scientists and food safety authorities around the world are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19. There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 being spread through food or food packaging. However, the pandemic has made us more aware of the critical importance of food safety. According to a new study from the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) that surveyed more than 1,750 people in the U.S., U.K. and China, more than half of respondents (52 percent) feel food safety is a top three global issue – and 77 percent think it’s a top 10 global issue.

Food can become contaminated with microorganisms that cause human illnesses from multiple sources along the entire food chain, starting from infections in live animals up to the point of consumption. Preventing such contamination will reduce foodborne illness and decrease the likelihood of new viruses emerging in the food chain. Effective management of risks arising from food related hazards is technically a complex process. A process that has been traditionally the responsibility of the industry that has to operate an array of control measures relating to the food hygiene within an overall regulatory framework. A “Risk-based” approach is the mean of evaluating and controlling food related hazards to help protecting the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in food trade. Risk analysis includes 3 component parts of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.

Unsafe food is a major social and development challenge and public health cannot be improved if the food reaching the consumer is not safe. Food safety must therefore be high on the public health agenda, especially for developing countries, where food safety can be one of the most significant challenges for access to export markets. To prevent, identify, manage and control foodborne risks is key to guaranteeing safe food for everybody, everywhere as well as to maintaining fair practices in the food trade.

What makes food safety unique and different from other areas of public health is its multisectoral nature. Food safety is fundamentally multidisciplinary. It cuts across different sectors such as health, agriculture, fisheries, industry, trade, environment, tourism, education, and economy. Food safety must be integrated along the entire food chain, from farm to table, with the diffirent sectors: government, farmers, food companies and consumers and taking advantage of public-private partnerships.

It also crosses across national borders. Food produced in one country today can, within 24 hours, be on the other side of the planet and on its way to shops, restaurants and homes. Food safety is a shared responsibility. The management of food safety requires a comprehensive and inclusive approach to be effective. Therefore, the world needs a mechanism for investing in food safety in a sustainable way, adapted to national and regional circumstances. Coordination between all relevant agencies within government as well as with stakeholders from the entire food supply chain is essential.

Keeping all workers in the food production and supply chains healthy and safe is critical to avoid food shortages. In order to balance this with the need to maintain the safety and integrity of the food supply chain and support international trade, food safety regulators need to prioritize critically important services during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To facilitate this, FAO and WHO have developed guidance for food safety authorities, and FAO has provided policy guidance for various aspects of food safety and food security measures in the light of the pandemic. To ensure and maintain access to safe food, it is key to reinforce the implementation of the existing international standards developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, in particular on food hygiene and food Import and Export Inspection and Certification.

Strict hygiene rules already govern the production of food. The hygiene controls to be implemented by food business operators are designed to prevent the contamination of the food by any pathogens, and will therefore also aim at preventing contamination of the food by the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Food businesses and their operators must reinforce good hygienic practices and standard operating procedures. Strict personnel hygiene is crucial. All food industry organizations should strictly follow the protocols of Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) given by authorities based on HACCP principles and should be kept updated in response to new pieces of evidence for viruses when required. In food companies where HACCP protocols are not being implemented, an expert should be appointed who will remain in contact with public health authorities to seek advice during the pandemic situation. Hand washing stations should be maintained for the workforce with the provision of normal soap, warm running water, hand sanitizers, and posters designed for displaying information regarding effective hand washing and sanitization. The physical distancing of 6 feet should be implemented among workers as infected people may remain asymptomatic or be pre-symptomatic during the course of the disease and may spread the infection when close to others. The introduction of staggered workstations is an effective method to overcome the challenge of physical distancing in food industry facilities.

The application of sound principles of environmental sanitation, personal hygiene and established food safety practices will reduce the likelihood that harmful pathogens will threaten the safety of the food supply.


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