World Food Safety Day 2023: Sound Science is the Foundation of Food Standards that Save Lives
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World Food Safety Day 2023: Sound Science is the Foundation of Food Standards that Save Lives

May 25, 2023

Credit: Renate Vanaga via Unsplash

This year marks the fifth celebration of World Food Safety Day (WFSD), which takes place every year on June 7. The journey to dedicate a day to raising awareness about the importance of food safety started in 2016, when the Codex Alimentarius Commission at its 39th meeting unanimously agreed to promote a proposal to declare a permanent day for World Food Safety Day within the United Nations (UN) framework. After the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed their support for such a day in 2017, and through the efforts of the government of Costa Rica, the UN General Assembly formally designated June 7 as World Food Safety Day by adopting resolution 73/2501 in December 2018.

WFSD is an important recognition for the fundamental role of food safety in achieving food security, as well as its centrality in the agri-food system. Even though WFSD comes along once a year, food safety must be protected year-round to continue promoting good health and sufficient food for all. It also plays a key role supporting economic growth and facilitating international trade.

"Food safety is everyone's business." The WFSD motto emphasizes how food safety is truly a shared responsibility, as we all need to do our part. Keeping food safe from farm to table is, in fact, a complex process that requires everyone in the agri-food system to play their roles—from policymakers and regulators to food manufacturers, processors, retailers, and consumers.

We at FAO also need to do our part. As we have recently articulated in the "FAO Strategic Priorities for Food Safety,"2 our mission is to "support Members in continuing to improve food safety at all levels by providing scientific advice and strengthening their food safety capacities for more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable agri-food systems." Of course, we cannot achieve this alone. We work with a multitude of partners, starting from WHO, with whom we have a longstanding partnership covering all aspects of food safety. International risk assessment bodies such as the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), Joint FAO/WHO Expert Meetings on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA), and Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) bring together FAO and WHO to provide independent risk assessments based on the best available science. These risk assessments form the basis for international food standards. An example of this process in action involves JECFA performing risk assessments upon which the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Food (CCCF) makes risk management decisions that are ultimately adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC).

Inclusive and collaborative science is the unifying force that comes into play throughout the food safety standard setting process. Before FAO/WHO bodies meet, an open call for data is issued inviting all interested stakeholders, from both public and private sector sources across the globe, to submit current scientific data that feed into the risk assessment process. Following this, international scientific experts, keeping both geographic distribution and gender diversity in mind, are brought together to evaluate the gathered data and draw risk assessment conclusions. These recommendations are then discussed at the Codex level by the member countries, and standards are adopted by consensus.

The cooperative and consensus-building aspect of this process is both beautifully egalitarian and complex at the same time. Discussions around adopting food standards are based on the existing regulatory frameworks and trade issues that are unique to each country and, therefore, how countries with different food safety experiences and expertise regard food safety risk levels can vary. Building common ground despite these differences can take time and requires collective efforts by all parties to work toward achieving consensus. The result of this process is, however, not only rewarding but also important: the development of standards and norms that cover all aspects of food safety (from food hygiene to food additives, pesticide residues, veterinary drugs residues, contaminants, labeling etc.) are internationally recognized points of reference for all countries.

This year's WFSD theme, "food standards save lives,"3 goes to the very heart of Codex work. In ensuring the safety and nutritional content of food products traded globally, Codex standards help prevent outbreaks of foodborne diseases in a world where food supply chains are growing more complex, with food products traveling longer distances, faster.

Food standards need to be health-protective not only for regional and international trade, but also for domestic markets. This is important, as we know that low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) bear a disproportionate brunt of the global foodborne disease burden. LMICs with limited resources and capacities to carry out their own food safety risk assessments rely on Codex standards for their domestic markets, while also accessing international trade. However, food safety standards cannot make an impact on the ground if capacities for their implementation and enforcement are lacking. Fragmented and heterogeneous agri-food systems with little coordination among actors, multiple responsible organizations with overlapping mandates, failure to align with local contexts, lack of harmonization of standards, and limited capacities for enforcement (such as insufficient food inspectors) are some of the challenges cited by stakeholders for implementation of standards. To this end, FAO stands ready to support countries in designing the right policy instruments and building institutional frameworks to ensure that food safety and quality requirements are met, per Codex standards.

Lastly, in this era of rapid transformation of agri-food systems and phenomenal scientific advancements, it is ever more necessary that we stay abreast of the changing contexts so that food standards stay reliable, robust, and relevant. In this respect, foresight is an important forward-thinking approach in our food safety toolkit that helps proactively scan and monitor emerging challenges and opportunities. This allows us to be prepared to make informed decisions on the revision or setting of international food standards while providing improved guidance to national authorities and value-chain operators. With 2030 around the corner, strategic foresight empowers our efforts to make our agri-food systems "future-proof" by enabling present-day decisions and mobilizing collective action in this fast-evolving context.

© FAO, 2023 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations"The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations."


Corinna Hawkes, Ph.D. is the Director of the Food Systems and Food Safety Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).


Corinna Hawkes, Ph.D. is the Director of the Food Systems and Food Safety Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Author Corinna Hawkes, Ph.D. References Corinna Hawkes, Ph.D.