粮农组织亚洲及太平洋区域办事处

Food safety practices in Asia-Pacific get a boost from an unlikely source – COVID-19

03/06/2020 

While the global pandemic brought on by the spread of COVID-19 has heightened awareness about the need for personal hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, to avoid transmitting the virus, it has also reminded everyone that similar good hygiene practices are always needed in the preparation and handling of food, a joint webinar on food safety heard today.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has urged countries in the Asia-Pacific region to wholeheartedly continue with their efforts to improve food safety along agri-food chains. The largest global producers of some key primary commodities – rice, pulses, oilseeds, millets, sugar, milk, fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, pork – are all in Asia.  

“Food safety standards and Codes of Practice, particularly those of Codex, have never been more important than today,” said Sridhar Dharmapuri, an FAO Senior Food Safety and Nutrition Officer while speaking to the webinar. “COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through food. However, when we reach the end of lockdowns, countries will be looking to jumpstart their economies and increase trade, both domestic and external. Food safety and hygiene will be vital to ensure consumer confidence,” he added.

The Webinar was organized in advance of World Food Safety Day on 7 June. It was co-convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Nearly one-thousand participants including invited speakers and panelists from Government, private sector, academia and consumer groups as well as the four organizing agencies agreed that these heightened hygiene measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic will have positive effects on longer term food safety. Frequent handwashing, sanitizers at homes, workplaces, on public transport and everywhere else has made hygiene and cleanliness everybody’s choice weapon to push back the pandemic. The more this ‘new normal’ takes root and instills the sense of keeping clean all the time, the safer our food supply becomes, they acknowledged.

World Food Safety Day: ‘Food safety, everyone’s business’

“Food control has two parts – the regulatory framework and standards and practices. Laws are difficult to enforce among the large populations in Asia. It is easier to educate and delegate the adoption of good practices to industry and consumers that promote food safety” said Dharmapuri. “It’s in everyone’s interest - it costs very little but can increase incomes, improve nutrition and make a real difference to people’s lives. Let’s use the good habits COVID-19 has forced us to cultivate to this end,” he added.

Food is sold through a variety of market places. There are fresh food markets in urban and rural areas where farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers. There are super market chains and there are online portals.

“Any food sold in any type of marketplace needs to be safe for human consumption, there can be no exceptions,” said Masami Takeuchi, Food Safety Officer at the FAO Regional Office. “That’s why the sub-theme this year is safe food in markets.”

Asia-Pacific – one big region, different experiences in handling food

Consumers in the Asia-Pacific region are demanding better standards but quicker food delivery.

India, like other countries in the region, has seen a massive jump in the use of app-based delivery services. As the last link in the chain, they have limited control but more visibility to the consumer. Vishal Bhatia, the CEO of India’s largest app-based food delivery service SWIGGY said that they focused heavily on consumer education and raising awareness of restaurants and food service operators. Food control systems have to ensure preventive measures across the chain so that the final product is safe. Unsafe food cannot be ‘cured’, it has to be discarded. “Ensuring food safety should be seen as an investment and not as a cost’, he added.

China has made significant changes in its system after the melamine scandal, delegated more responsibility to the private sector and made them more accountable. Junshi Chen, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment, named food borne pathogens stemming from poor hygiene practices as the single biggest challenge.  COVID-19 measures, therefore, would contribute to improved food safety in Asia. He also emphasized, however, that fake news about food was posing a severe test to regulators, businesses and customers and strong, consistent messaging was needed to combat it.

Singapore, which is heavily dependent on imports but is championing local production through its 30 by 30 initiative, has integrated its existing food-linked agencies into one, the Singapore Food Agency to better deal with these changes brought about by technology and necessity. Joanne Chan, Director of the National Center for Food Science echoed the importance of food safety being ‘everyone’s business’. The private sector needed to play their role by dependably implementing standards and practices and consumers of all ages must do their share at homes, workplaces and schools, she said.

Food doesn’t transmit COVID-19

The webinar dealt extensively with the problem of fake news which has extracted a heavy toll particularly on the meat and dairy businesses due to their mistaken association with COVID-19. The four organizations have jointly released a series of messages that clearly state that food does not transmit the virus nor does any food protect against it. “Fact checking needs to become as regular a habit as handwashing,” concluded one of the participants.

FAO supports countries in the Asia-Pacific region to improve food safety through better co-ordination between Government Ministries and departments, developing a robust regulatory framework and assisting in the implementation of good practices from farm to fork. FAO works with industry, farmers, value chain actors and NGOs to ensure safe food for consumers and increase trade in agriculture commodities.

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