Food safety risk, the coronavirus pandemic, and the role of regulators were among the topics discussed at a recent virtual event organized by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The sessions of the first day of the first international conference on food regulatory analysis covered the use of risk models and data analysis, risk communication, an international perspective on food safety issues, food allergies and food safety culture. The second day dealt with the impact of the pandemic, emerging risks, regulatory response, and new trends and technologies.
Mark Booth, executive director of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), said he increasingly sees tensions around international supply chains, dependence on them and how easily they have been disrupted over the past year.
“We must ensure that our own countries with a protected supply chain do not come to the detriment of international cooperation and ensure that no one is left behind. “Although we have had this global pandemic, our experience here is that things are not standing still, technology is increasing even faster,” he said during the panel discussion.
“One of the key things to look out for when leaving COVID is that governments around the world are looking for food to be the way to economic recovery. One of the temptations would be to start watching us deregulate. I think there will be a huge amount of pressure on all of us. The challenge for us as regulators is how we balance this with the need to ensure evidence-based food safety standards.
“From the perspective of Australia and New Zealand, there is a lot of debate about agility and moving to outcome-based measures and standards, while ensuring that such methods are safe because only one problem is needed and we will all start running back in more prescribed ways.” I think there is support and will, but we have to look carefully at how we do it. “
Tom Heilandt, secretary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, said there is now more standardization than there was before.
“Codex deals with setting standards for consumer health protection and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. We also need to adjust our rules to change, because once you set rules and never adjust those that are outdated, you stagnate or are counterproductive. Some resets come by accident or in a crisis. We seem to need triggers for transformations, now we see a lot of energy to transform our food systems before it’s too late, ”he said.
“It was said that food safety is a meeting place for agriculture and human health. I would say Codex food standards are a place where science and innovation meet policy. Science and innovation have provided safe and nutritious food to a much larger number of people than before, but not yet to everyone. “
Codex standards are voluntary and usually take four years to set.
“We work in a dynamic environment with pandemics, climate change, innovation, consumer concerns and behavior change, such as ordering food online, aggressive marketing and the UN Food Systems Summit,” Heilandt said.
“Change is possible, as we have shown in Codex, through virtual meetings. The pandemic has brought new rules and behaviors, some of which are very useful, especially in terms of hygiene, but they have also brought new conspiracy theories and science fatigue in a large part of the population, so we need to communicate better about science and the work we do. ”
Opportunities and accelerating trends
Steve Wearne, vice president of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, told many regulators that the pandemic meant they could not proceed with physical inspection as the primary means of audit and verification.
“Out of necessity, they have adopted means of remote and virtual audit that can provide an adequate level of security about the safety and authenticity of food products. We now have the opportunity to consider and determine how remote access can be an effective part of our audit and verification tool. “
Wearne, who is also director of global affairs at the FSA, said the good news is that food safety is enjoying an increasing profile internationally.
“We should welcome this oversight of our work, but also recognize that expectations are high. “The integrity of the global food supply chain has come under unprecedented and persistent pressure, and the pandemic has accelerated existing trends in the way food is sold and consumed,” he said.
“We must keep in mind that the effects of a pandemic are not distributed equally within or between countries. Consumers in low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of price increases, some of which will be attributed to other factors, but some will be linked to the effects of the pandemic. COVID exacerbates existing inequalities and we must first understand them. “
About 1,000 people registered for the conference earlier this month. It was originally planned for March 2020, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outside the EU and closer to INFOSAN
Emily Miles, executive director of the FSA, said the event was timely and the global food system faced complex and interconnected challenges.
“We have climate change, public health concerns about non-communicable diseases like obesity and diabetes, and the economic challenges that countries face because of the impact of COVID,” she said.
“This means that the way food is delivered and the types of food available will change and force consumers to think and behave differently. We, as regulators, are responsible for ensuring that food is safe and that it is as it is. We must make sure that our work makes it easier for companies to do the right thing, but also for consumers to do the right thing for their families. “
Miles also spoke about Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“The FSA has taken on new responsibilities that the EU used to do on behalf of the UK. We now have to make a risk assessment of the new food, receive applications from companies, weigh the risks and give advice to ministers on whether the products are safe and whether they should be approved for consumption, ”she said.
“We have also increased our engagement with INFOSAN to strengthen our capacity to manage post-Brexit incidents. These efforts ensure that we make the best use of these international networks and they will be vital to us in the post-Brexit era. “
Responding to COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges facing any country in peacetime, Miles said.
“The British food industry and its regulators have learned a lot from the pressures of the past year. Our opinion on the FSA is that the food system has proven to be resilient. He was able to maintain supply and security in difficult circumstances, including when huge quantities of products destined for the catering and catering area were transformed into items used in retail or food packages. There were a few bumps on the road, but it worked, ”she said.
“Recovery after a pandemic is an opportunity for us to apply those lessons to become a better regulator. COVID-19 also showed us that in some parts of the population there is a level of distrust of the information they receive from the government and other official sources. To hear us we need to listen, we need to understand communities and consumers and their perspectives to understand how they understand the world. “
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