A person’s right to safe food shouldn’t be determined by lines on a map, or resolutions in a trade accord
Peter Van Deursen
Countries in the Asia Pacific region understand better than anyone the vitality of food trade. The region accounts for 31% of global food imports, according to a 2016 report by Rabobank. This is because, increasingly, Asian nations like China, South Korea, Indonesia and India are relying on both their regional neighbours and farmers on the other side of the globe to supply the food they need for their rapidly growing populations, whose diets are diversifying as their incomes rise. This is a wise optimisation of natural resources and comparative advantage. Yet with sporadic outbreaks of disease like bird flu and other food safety concerns, consumers want to know that the food arriving on their plates is safe no matter where in the world it was produced.
As food increasingly travels across borders, the key to safe food every time, everywhere is a harmonised set of science-based standards. This ensures that food can move—as it must in our increasingly urbanised and interconnected world—and that consumers everywhere will be protected. Yet we have more work to do to make such a system a reality.
Many people may be surprised to learn that countries have conflicting standards for food safety. Controls for the more than 200 diseases that can be caused by food-borne pathogens have evolved differently in various cultures, depending on dietary practices and agricultural systems. Testing procedures also differ, as do policies towards non-disease-related issues such as food additives, hormones, antibiotics and biotechnology, like genetically modified organisms.
Food safety standards can and do get tied up in international affairs, at times becoming negotiating points in trade agreements and disputes. But a person’s right to safe food shouldn’t be determined by lines on a map, or resolutions in a trade accord. To complicate matters, many countries also have two sets of food safety standards: one for food produced and consumed domestically, and another for food being exported or imported. This increases confusion, cost and, most critically, risk.
In the midst of this ambiguity, food and agriculture companies are taking the lead to advance an effective, consistent set of science-based standards. For example, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) advocates that food safety management systems be based on the Codex Alimentarius, the rigorous standards put forth by the WHO and FAO. Because there are many different approaches to food safety management out there (owing to the diverse regulatory standards in different countries), GFSI pushes for equivalence and convergence among them.
This is not just an effort by or for large companies. Small- and medium-sized operations make up 90% of the food and beverage sector. Enabling food enterprises of all sizes to meet high standards is a critical step in building a successful system. Industry is leading here as well, treating food safety as a non-competitive issue and raising the bar all along the supply chain by sharing best practices.
The GFSI Global Markets Programme helps small- and medium-sized food enterprises and farming operations establish effective food safety management programmes that meet the standards of Codex. These food producers in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia provide much of the fruit, vegetables, aquaculture and other foods consumed in neighbouring Asian countries. Through participation in the programme, small farmer cooperatives in these countries have seen improved market access for their products and have received premium payments for food safety compliance. Meanwhile, the system as a whole grows stronger.
What can consumers across the region do to continue driving progress? Call on your government regulators—and officials negotiating trade agreements—to support a harmonised set of international standards based on science. A forum like ASEAN is an excellent channel to help advance this work. As government leaders embrace a common set of science-based standards, it will support a system that nourishes everyone safely, no matter where they live or where their food was produced. And that’s something we can all support.
The author is CEO, Cargill Asia Pacific