Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Facilitating Trade in Safe Foods: Standards or Regulations?

This is the second post in the Feed the Future Enabling Environment for Food Security project’s blog series exploring food safety and cross-border trade. The first post discussed the importance of regulatory cooperation for ensuring food safety in intra-African trade in light of advancements towards Africa’s Continental Free Trade Area. This second installment discusses how different types of standards and regulations work in practice and the complementary roles they each play in mitigating food safety threats.

Momentum is building in Africa to expand intra-continental trade of agricultural products through regulatory cooperation to ensure food reaches consumers safely. From the African Union member states’ support for the 2014 Malabo Declaration to their ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area in 2016, developments on the continent have set the stage for coordination across borders to support safe food trade.

Central to facilitating trade in safe foods are the roles that both standards and regulations — terms that are frequently used but often misunderstood — perform in shaping the practice. To clarify the distinct role each plays in supporting trade in safe foods, this article presents foundational distinctions and interactions between standards and regulations in agricultural market systems. This post also explores the complementary roles that both the public and private sectors play in building safe food systems.

What Types of Standards Ensure Food Safety?

Importantly, there are several different types of standards for food systems. Each plays a distinct but complementary role in ensuring safe food is traded within and across borders.

Private Voluntary Standards

Private food safety standards are established and administered by expert networks, business associations, and/or commercial enterprises. Market actors’ uptake of these standards is voluntary. However, where a buyer requires supplier compliance with a standard, they effectively become mandatory within that market channel. Private voluntary standards are demand-driven, meaning that the end consumer drives the expectations for food safety and quality within a market channel. Buyers pass those expectations to suppliers along the chain.

Several different types of private voluntary standards exist in food markets, including:

  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO): Standards produced by the ISO are written by technical experts across the world. While not mandatory, companies or governments adopting the ISO standards will be complying with internationally accepted guidelines on food safety. Specific ISO standards related to food safety include: ISO 22000:2005 – Food safety overall requirements; ISO/TS 22002-1:2009 – Specific prerequisites for food manufacturing; ISO/TS 22002-3:2011 – Specific prerequisites for farming; ISO 22005:2007 – Traceability in the feed and food chain.
  • GlobalG.A.P: A private organization formed by European retailers, GlobalG.A.P establishes and administers production-level Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). It includes a prominent food safety module. Many leading international retailers require suppliers at the primary production level to be compliant with GlobalG.A.P standards. GlobalG.A.P is generally considered the gold standard for farm-level production practices.
  • Commercial Proprietary Standards: Often times the buyer designs and administers additional food safety standards. An example of a commercial proprietary standard led by a global supermarket is Tesco’s Nurture (formerly Nature’s Choice). These standards are a trade secret only known to Tesco, its suppliers, and the auditors. Commercial standards are often more rigorous than national or international standards and national regulations and legislation on food safety.
  • Product Quality Standards: These standards ensure buyers and sellers have a common understanding of quality, which is critical to facilitating trade by minimizing disputes and preventing the importation of poor quality food. Product quality standards cover the physical characteristics of products, such as size, weight, color; sugar and acid levels; freedom from pests and diseases, damage, and soiling. Quality standards may also specify required packaging type and labelling formats, which may align with any related national regulations.

National Voluntary Standards

Often, a country establishes and administers its own national standard for production-level GAPs, including food safety. Some countries who have established such systems include, but are not limited to, Kenya (KenyaGAP) and Vietnam (VietGAP) for fruits and vegetables or Thailand (ThaiGAqP, with the “Aq” representing “aquaculture”) for fish and shrimp aquaculture. These systems are often put in place to raise awareness of government-led oversight within a priority sector for export promotion.

National standards are typically written and administered by government agencies, including training and certifying farmers. Where buyers are not aware of the national standard system, or see the standard as inferior to existing private voluntary standards, the demand for these standards is low and producer uptake is subsequently low.

Further, where national standards vary across countries, the inconsistencies create confusion among buyers who may choose to rely on internationally accepted standards. To avoid this, a government may establish a national voluntary standard that aligns with (or is determined to be equivalent to) an internationally accepted private voluntary standard, such as GlobalG.A.P or ISO, to reduce redundancy and advance export promotion objectives.

How Do Laws and Regulations Promote Safe Food Trade?

National Regulations and Legislation

National governments also ensure food safety by introducing and implementing mandatory food safety regulations and laws to protect consumers. Government regulations and laws require that food must not have unsafe levels of microbes, chemicals, and/or physical contaminants. They also indicate the specific parameters which must be met. In developed markets, mandatory laws and regulations on food safety coexist with private voluntary standards. While private voluntary standards are very effective at controlling food safety within specific market channels, the government maintains a critical role in ensuring public health across the entire food system.

Under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, member countries are permitted to establish their own food safety regulations. However, to ensure regulations are not being used to restrict international trade and unfairly protect domestic producers, national regulations must comply with the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, which covers food safety measures. To comply with the SPS Agreement, national food safety laws and regulations are expected to be consistent with the following internationally recognized standards: Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), and/or World Organization for Animal Health/Organization International Epizootic (OIE).

Where national food safety laws and regulations are found to be inconsistent with these widely accepted international standards, and they erect unfair barriers to trade, then the WTO member state should submit “scientific justification” that the national laws and regulations provide an appropriate level of protection, whereas the international standard fails to do so. [1]

Challenges and Opportunities Across Africa

Generally, across Africa, mandatory food safety laws and regulations are both few in number and rarely enforced. [2] A study of nine countries found that food safety laws were unfocused and generic and lacked clear mandates for action. Additionally, the study found that mandatory food safety rules largely ignored informal markets, which provide over 80 percent of food consumed across the continent. [3]

Additionally, informal markets tend to cater to lower income consumers who have limited awareness of food safety issues or the financial resources to spend more in higher quality market channels. Farmers supplying informal market channels are also less willing and/or able to absorb the significant cost required to comply with private voluntary standards in lower value channels, even if informal retailers expected them to do so. Further, food safety regulations can decrease demand from lower income consumers for nutritious foods, because they increase the cost of production often beyond the buying power of consumers. [4]

The solution is not simple, and food systems in Africa will not transform overnight. But both demand-driven standards administered by the commercial sector and mandatory regulations administered by government institutions will be critical factors in the enabling environment for safe food trade going forward.

As the middle class continues to emerge across Africa and the supermarket proliferation continues, private voluntary standards will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role. Producers will need to be equipped with the technical capacity and access to capital needed to upgrade their practices and comply with standards demanded by higher value market channels. In the foreseeable future, however, these market channels will only absorb a fraction of supply, and suppliers and will only cater to a small proportion of consumers overall.

Enforcement of mandatory minimum food safety rules by public sector institutions will remain necessary, just as it does across developed country food systems. Relevant regulatory agencies require the capacity and resources to establish and implement appropriate food safety laws and regulations. To facilitate increased intra-continental trade, this effort will need to include alignment and equivalence of national standards, laws, and regulations with internationally accepted food safety standards, including ISO, CAC, IPPC, and/or OIE.

The integrity of national systems will rely on effective conformity assessment at critical points along the supply chain, including at the production/processing level, border points, and retail markets. National governments must commit to a regionally integrated food system in which the rules are designed and enforced to facilitate trade in safe food rather than to control competition.


[1] World Trade Organization, “Understanding the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures,” https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/sps_e/spsund_e.htm.

[2] Linda L. Leake, “Food Safety in Africa,” Food Quality and Safety, February 20, 2014, accessed July 15, 2019, https://www.foodqualityandsafety.com/article/out-of-africa/.

[3] D. Grace, E. Kang'ethe, B. Bonfoh, K. Roesel, and K. Makita, “Food Safety Policy in 9 African Countries,” Presented at the fourth annual Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health conference, London, UK, 3-4 June 2014. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRi. Accessed July 15, 2019, https://cgspace.cgiar.org/handle/10568/68865.

[4] Delia Grace, “Food Safety in Developing Countries: Research Gaps and Opportunities,” White Paper, Nairobi, Kenya, ILRI, 2017, accessed July 15, 2019, https://cgspace.cgiar.org/handle/10568/81515.