Food Safety at Three Levels for One Purpose
This post is written by Kelly Thompson, Senior Manager, Design and Technical Services, Land O’Lakes Venture37.
According to the World Health Organization initiative to estimate the global burden of food-borne diseases, 31 hazards caused 600 million food-borne illnesses and 33 million disability-adjusted life years in 2010. Food safety remains a global threat and as development practitioners, we must consider the food safety health and productivity nexus and minimize our contributions toward the creation of a two-tiered food system — one where safe products are sold in countries that embrace food safety standards, and another where unsafe products are sold in countries that do not.
When housed in agricultural commercialization or trade programs, food safety interventions are often considered as a means to increase trade by meeting end-market requirements. While meeting end-market requirements does increase incomes, which is a powerful motivation for compliance, it is vital that market access and consumer demand remain core components of food safety interventions that incentivize businesses, national governments and regional trade blocks to adopt, comply with and enforce food safety standards.
However, all countries and most businesses are met with challenges caused by limited resources. To overcome this barrier, resources, regardless of size, must be optimized and consumer education and empowerment needs to be prioritized. Establishing minimum standards and risk-based systems at all levels — international, national and business — is the first step to ensuring we all do the best with what we have, uniformly lift compliance and improve food safety outcomes.
Consumer engagement is critical to generating enough political will to put food safety at the front of the agenda. Consumer education on food safety can also encourage and hold businesses accountable to meet end-market demand for safe products — whether that end-market is a grocery shelf in Ireland or an open-air market in Uganda. Overall, increased consumer engagement provides a link between better regulation, compliance and higher sales, which is necessary to drive governments and businesses to invest in food safety for every consumer.
Why a Risk-Based Approach?
Under a risk-based approach, products, procedures and suppliers with a higher risk profile receive greater scrutiny than those with a lower risk profile. These profiles are developed based on the risks inherent to the product or processing method. For example, high-moisture perishable foods have a higher likelihood of biological risks, pesticide-treated perishables have a higher risk of chemical contamination and food milled with metal machinery prone to damage has a higher risk of physical contamination. Past performance of suppliers (producers, processors and traders) also weighs into calculation of risk — those who have sold unsafe products in the past are more likely to supply unsafe products in the future. Higher risk products and suppliers are subjected to a higher frequency of inspections and more rigorous testing protocols suited to purpose, while lower risk products and suppliers are subject to less scrutiny. This prioritization helps to strike a balance between ease and speed of trade and consumer safety. By focusing on the risks that either occur most frequently or have the most devastating consequences, regulators and producers are able to efficiently eliminate critical risks with finite resources and acceptably safe products enter the market at prices consumers can afford.
Food Safety at Three Levels
Currently, Venture37 is proudly implementing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)- and USAID-funded programs that put food safety and quality at the core of the project rather than a subcomponent of a larger value chain project. These programs span the spectrum of scale — from the producer and processor businesses to national governments to regional trade blocks. At all three levels — international, national and business — we are working to support adoption of risk-based procedures and putting the consumer first.
International: The USDA-funded Trade of Agriculture Safely and Efficiently (TRASE) project is a regional cross-border initiative that works with members of the East African Community (EAC) to reduce sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) regulatory barriers — including food safety — through increased domestication of the regionally harmonized SPS regulations and targeted capacity building of public and private actors. We work with the national and regional SPS committees. At the national level, we strengthen the role of national SPS committees and technical working groups, including the CODEX committees and the pesticide technical working groups.
One thing that is weakening food control systems is a fragmented food inspection system. Multiple regulatory entities have overlapping responsibilities that lead to confusion and compromise food safety outcomes. Working alongside the food safety competent authorities, we are mapping out the entire system, identifying overlaps and gaps and providing guidance on risk-based inspection systems. For example, in Rwanda, we are supporting the development and implementation of the Rwanda Implementation Framework for Food Inspection Agencies to work collaboratively, avoid overlaps and ensure limited resources are used efficiently to optimize the availability of safe products for consumers. To help producers do the best with the resources they have, we are also supporting a Farm Assurers program to help producers achieve compliance with regional export standards and bring them several steps closer to achieving international certification of their products.
National: In Egypt, under the USDA-funded Transforming the Inspection and Assessment of Food Businesses in Egypt (TAIB) program, Ventures37 is helping to build the capacity of the newly established National Food Safety Authority (NFSA) to create a well-functioning entity with risk-based procedures to oversee food safety and expand the domestic and international trade of safe food products. This is accomplished through regulatory benchmarking, risk analysis, platforms for public-private dialogue and provision of international guidance and reference documentation to support harmonization efforts. We are working with NFSA to establish minimum requirements based on CODEX hygiene requirements for food safety prerequisite programs and to train inspectors on these minimum requirements. These standards boil compliance down to the lowest common denominator and emphasize the areas of greatest risk. Consistent application of minimum standards accomplishes three important things:
- It enables finite enforcement staff to ensure a minimum standard of food safety across a greater number of suppliers and greater volume of food.
- It provides suppliers with a consistent, knowable and achievable set of minimum requirements they need to meet, making compliance less daunting.
- It increases the consumer access to greater volumes of safe food from a greater number of suppliers (as a function of 1 and 2).
Additionally, we’ve assisted NFSA to establish consumer complaint procedures that guide how to solicit and process complaints, make a decision, communicate back to the consumer and provide information to consumers on how to file complaints and what to expect. Establishing these procedures is an important component of consumer empowerment, and helps NFSA better target its allocation of resources as consumers become partners to the Agency in tracking risk.
Business: Venture37 holds the Farmer-to-Farmer Leader Award for a Food Safety and Quality program focusing on Egypt, Lebanon and Bangladesh. Through this program, we provide direct support to businesses that seek to upgrade their food safety compliance schemes to gain better access to markets, both domestic and international. To help producers and processors take the next step toward compliance — no matter where they are starting from — we use the Global Food Safety Initiative’s (GFSI) Global Markets Programme to assess food safety gaps in their operations. We work with business owners to use the assessment findings to prioritize interventions that will have the greatest impact, starting with areas of greatest risk. For businesses, food safety and quality can be more than just a barrier to overcome; it can be a critical to enabling business, differentiating from competitors and driving consumer loyalty.
By tapping into food safety experts from our corporate affiliate Land O’Lakes, Inc. — a Fortune 200 agribusiness with a cadre of 70 food safety and supply chain experts — and our global network of expert volunteers, we are able to educate, troubleshoot and help businesses do the best they can with what they have in order to improve food safety and gain market access. For example, in Lebanon, we have supported potato processor Tayyebat to meet international standards and grow its domestic footprint. Currently processing 15,000 tons, they have made improvements to comply with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and establish a robust traceability system. They are now able to export to Iraq, Libya, Angola, Kuwait and Jordan and have conditional approval to supply to an internationally recognized fast-food chain.