As global trade continues to expand and developing countries increase their presence in international trade, the food industry and its regulators need to be aware of the risks and prepare for the issues that can occur. Reducing this risk throughout the global supply chain requires that the industry produce safe, high-quality food and that all governments have food-control systems in place to ensure that. It is a balancing act for which government-industry integration is critical to success.

As the state of the food industry and food production has changed, so too has the general environment in which food is traded and in the rules that are applied. International trading in food formerly took place with little, if any, government intervention, and it was accepted that the food producers set their own standards and determined the quality of food products offered to consumers. While many were reputable and responsible and took great care to protect the health of consumers, some food suppliers used the unregulated markets to exploit consumers through unfair pricing, misrepresentation of products, and misleading labeling. Such abuses led to government involvement, the enactment of food laws and regulations, and the establishment of food control agencies to ensure that all food—domestic, imported, and exported—complied with appropriate laws. However, with the increasing volume of trade among countries, difficulties have risen from the independent establishment of laws and standards in different countries.

For this reason, success of international food trade depends greatly on the structure and degree of control at the national level along with compliance with international agreements. While the onus is on the food industry to produce safe and high-quality products, each government has a responsibility to provide a national food-control system with a supporting infrastructure, to assume an advisory and regulatory role and, when necessary, to enforce food laws. The government’s food-control agencies need to assure consumers that they have set and will enforce standards for the quality and safety of foods. These agencies need to work with food producers in a cooperative and collaborative manner to ensure the quality and safety of exports through appropriate inspection, testing and certification methods.

The principal objectives of national food-control systems should be:
Protecting public health by reducing the risk of foodborne illness.
Protecting consumers from unsanitary, unwholesome, mislabeled, or adulterated food.
Contributing to economic development by maintaining consumer confidence in the food system and providing a sound regulatory foundation for domestic and international trade.

Government Responsibilities.
Food law has traditionally consisted of legal definitions of unsafe food, with regulation enforced by the removal of food from commerce and punishment of responsible parties. This, however, has generally not provided a clear mandate and authority to prevent food safety problems. The result was food safety programs that are reactive and enforcement-oriented rather than preventive and holistic in their approach to reducing the risk of foodborne illness.
While today’s food laws are becoming more preventive, the changing world also brings additional challenges for food control authorities, including:
The increasing burden of foodborne illness and new and emerging foodborne hazards.
Rapidly changing technologies in food production, processing, and marketing.
Development of science-based food-control systems with a focus on consumer protection.
International food trade and need for harmonization of food safety and quality standards.
Changes in lifestyles, including rapid urbanization.
Growing consumer awareness of food safety and quality issues and increasing demand for better information.
Some of the factors which contribute to potential hazards in foods include improper agricultural practices; poor hygiene at all stages of the food chain; lack of preventive controls in food processing and preparation operations; misuse of chemicals; contaminated raw materials, ingredients and water; and inadequate or improper storage.
Additionally, specific concerns about food hazards have usually focused on microbiological hazards, pesticide residues, misuse of food additives, chemical contaminants (including biological toxins), and adulteration. The list has been further extended to cover genetically modified organisms (GMOs), allergens, veterinary drug residues, and growth-promoting hormones used in the production of animal products.
Globally, the incidence of foodborne diseases is increasing, and international food trade is disrupted by disputes over food safety and quality requirements. Many food-control systems need to be revised and strengthened if improvements are to be realized. Additionally, it has never been more important for developing countries to implement and enforce a food-control system based on today’s growing trend toward risk assessment, and to evolve from a punitive, reactive approach to a preventive approach to food control.

Effective National Food Control

Among other provisions, a national food control system and its legislation should:

  1. Provide a high level of health protection based on high quality, transparent, and independent scientific advice following risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. It should be transparent and ensure consumers have access to accurate and sufficient information; provide for the tracing of foods and recall when needed; ensure that only safe and fairly presented food is placed on the market; and place the primary responsibility for food safety and quality on producers and processors. Additionally, every national program should recognize the country‘s international obligations particularly in relation to trade.
  2. Require policy and operational coordination, detailed by the national legislation and establishing a leadership function and administrative structure with clearly defined accountability.
  3. Monitor and enforce food laws through a qualified, trained, efficient and honest food inspection service.
  4. Have an adequate number of laboratories with location determined by the objectives of the system and the volume of work, with one central reference laboratory equipped for sophisticated and reference analyses.
  5. Provide for the delivery of information, education and advice to stakeholders across the farm-to-table continuum. This should include balanced, factual information to consumers, information packages and educational programs for key officials and workers in the food industry, train-the-trainer programs, and reference literature to extension workers in the agriculture and health sectors. Source: WHO/FAO

An Integrated Approach.
Regardless of the development level of a country, its national food-control system should include effective enforcement of mandatory requirements, along with training and education, community outreach programs and promotion of voluntary compliance. Integrating this with preventive approaches by industry, such as HACCP, through which it takes responsibility for and control of food safety risks then facilitates improved consumer protection, stimulates agriculture and the food-processing industry, and promotes domestic and international food trade.
Such integration provides an economic and effective strategy for food safety. Food producers and operators are entrusted with primary responsibility for food safety and quality, and government regulators are then responsible for auditing performance of the food system through monitoring and surveillance activities and for enforcing legal and regulatory requirements.
It is also critical that the food-control system be developed and implemented in a transparent way. The confidence of consumers in the safety and quality of the food supply depends on their perception of the integrity and effectiveness of food-control operations and activities. Accordingly, it is important that all decision-making processes are transparent, allow all stakeholders in the food chain to make effective contributions, and explain the basis for all decisions. This will encourage cooperation from all concerned parties and improve the efficiency and rate of compliance.
When a nation plans and implements its food-control measures, consideration must be given to the costs of compliance (resources, personnel, and financial implications) for the food industry, as these costs are ultimately passed onto consumers.
Thus, the important questions are: Do the benefits of regulation justify the costs? What is the most efficient management option?

Global Food Trade
Most countries strive to take part in the global trade of food, with their governments recognizing that a strong national food industry not only supplies food to its population, it also is a significant contributor to food security, with food exports as an important source of foreign exchange. Today’s expansion and diversification of the global food trade can be attributed to a number of factors, including:
Food microbiology, chemistry, and technology are continuously providing a broader range of foods by developing new and more sophisticated preservation, processing, and packaging techniques which make foods safer, less perishable, and more attractive to the consumer.
Rapid transport and improved handling methods have reduced the length of time and difficulties associated with moving food long distances, allowing traders access to new and far-away markets.
Consumers’ tastes and food habits have become more varied and their incomes and purchasing power have risen, stimulating the demand for foods from other regions.

Source: WHO/FAO

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