COMMITTEE ON WORLD FOOD SECURITY
Rome, 31 May - 3 June 1999
THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOD
QUALITY AND SAFETY
1. The Rome Declaration on World Food Security reaffirms the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. The World Food Summit (WFS) thus recognised the intrinsic link between food security and food quality and safety control. Projected increases in the overall populations in developing countries, and in urban populations in particular, coupled with problems of environmental and food hygiene, will place greater stress on food production, handling and distribution systems in developing countries. This could lead to potentially serious food quality and safety problems. Furthermore, consequent to recent Uruguay Round Agreements on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), access to food export markets by developing countries will depend to a large extent on their ability to meet internationally accepted standards of food quality and safety. In light of the foregoing, the Committee on World Food Security is asked to consider the following issues:
2. "We are what we eat" is an old proverb. Our nutritional status, health, physical and mental faculties depend on the food we eat and how we eat it. Access to good quality food has been man's main endeavour from the earliest days of human existence. Safety of food is a basic requirement of food quality. "Food safety" implies absence or acceptable and safe levels of contaminants, adulterants, naturally occurring toxins or any other substance that may make food injurious to health on an acute or chronic basis. Food quality can be considered as a complex characteristic of food that determines its value or acceptability to consumers. Besides safety, quality attributes include: nutritional value; organoleptic properties such as appearance, colour, texture, taste; and functional properties.
3. The FAO/WHO International Conference on Nutrition (ICN), Rome 1992, recognised that regular access to adequate quantities of good quality and safe foods is essential for proper nutrition. ICN strongly endorsed the role of governments in strengthening food control systems and educating consumers. It highlighted the role of industry in ensuring food quality and safety starting from agricultural production through storage, processing and distribution using good manufacturing and proper food handling practices. Governments, the food industry and consumers have to play their roles effectively, and in a concerted manner, to ensure that the quality and safety of food supplies are not compromised and losses in the food system are minimised. In addition, the World Food Summit (WFS) Plan of Action recognises that: "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".
4. Food systems in developing countries are not always as well organised and developed as in the industrialised world. Moreover, problems of growing population, urbanisation, lack of resources to deal with pre- and post- harvest losses in food, and problems of environmental and food hygiene mean that food systems in developing countries continue to be stressed, adversely affecting quality and safety of food supplies. People in developing countries are therefore exposed to a wide range of potential food quality and safety risks. This paper discusses the special problems of food quality and safety in developing countries as well as their impact on food security and presents ways and means of dealing with these problems.
5. In 2020, the world population will most likely reach 7.6 billion, an increase of 31% over the mid-1996 population of 5.8 billioni . Approximately 98% of the projected population growth over this period will take place in developing countries. It has also been estimated that between the years 1995 and 2020 the developing world's urban population will double, reaching 3.4 billionii. This overall increase in population and in the urban population in particular, poses great challenges to food systems. Intensification of agriculture and animal husbandry; more efficient food handling, processing and distribution systems; introduction of newer technologies including appropriate application of biotechnology will all have to be exploited to increase food availability to meet the needs of growing populations. Some of these practices and technologies may also pose potential problems of food safety and nutritional quality and call for special attention in order to ensure consumer protection.
6. Rapid urbanisation has led urban services to be stretched beyond their limits, resulting in inadequate supplies of potable water, sewage disposal and other necessary services. This scenario further stresses food distribution systems as greatly increased quantities of food must be transported from rural to urban locations in an environment that is not conducive to hygiene and sanitation. The issue of street foods merits special attention. Recent growth in this sector has been phenomenal with important economic and nutritional implications in the urban context. Street foods are readily accessible and affordable to urban populations, and they provide the energy and nutrient needs of large segments of workers and their families in the cities. Clean and nutritious street foods have a positive impact on food security; low quality and unsafe street foods can have a negative impact. National and local authorities should take cognisance of the potential of this informal sector to improve food security. In many cases, facilities and training need to be provided for hygienic handling of street foods to assure their safety and quality.
7. It is often said that the poor will consume "anything" to mitigate their hunger. This may or may not be true. To the extent that this phenomenon exists, it only indicates the trade-off which people may face in difficult situations. On the one hand, survival may depend mainly on access to a minimum quantity of food. On the other hand, consumption of food which does not meet minimum safety standards, can also jeopardize survival. Governments must take the necessary steps through national food security policies, systems and programmes to ensure that food quality and safety considerations form an integral part of their food security system. At present many countries lack comprehensive national food quality and safety regulations. In weighing the gains against the cost of comprehensive food quality and safety standards, countries may conclude that given their social and economic level of development, the cost of certain standards are high relative to the gains, especially if these higher costs have to be borne by the poor themselves. Nevertheless, some developing countries, with FAO technical assistance, have adopted and implemented comprehensive national food quality and safety standards based on the international recommended Codex Alimentarius Commission standards, guidelines and codes of practice. These countries have immediately benefited from higher levels of investment in the food sector, better acceptance by consumers of higher quality and safer domestically produced raw and processed foods, and greatly improved access to foreing market for their food exports. Meeting these Codex-based standards has also increased efficiency in food production, processing and distribution, promoted a lower cost domestic supply of good quality and safe foods, reduced food loss problems and greatly increased export earnings.
8. The essence of all national food laws in industrialised and developing countries alike, is based on the following basic provision, which may be worded differently but has similar intent: "Any person who sells to the prejudice of the purchaser any food which is not of the nature or is not of the substance, or is not of the quality of the food demanded by the purchaser, shall be guilty of an offence ------" Such legislation establishes the will of the governments to protect their populations from unsafe and adulterated foods. This is achieved through appropriate food control measures based on well- defined food regulations covering quality and safety of food and its honest presentation to the consumer. Any steps taken by governments to strengthen these activities would significantly help in meeting food security needs and their commitments at the WFS.
9. In all countries the food industry bears the responsibility of meeting food quality and safety regulatory requirements. The food industry encompasses the activities of small-scale farmers and artisanal fisheries, through medium to large-scale producers; food storage; processing; wholesale and retail marketing. Food chains can be as short as from the home garden to the family table or thousands of kilometers long with many intermediaries. Food preservation, processing and packaging systems can be minimal or highly sophisticated, but assuring food quality and safety in all situations should be a constant. Industry must play its role in assuring food quality and safety through the application of quality assurance and risk-based food safety systems utilising current scientific knowledge. The implementation of such controls throughout production, handling, processing and marketing leads to improved food quality and safety, increased competitiveness; and, reduction in cost of production and wastage. Through national food control systems, governments should provide a supporting infrastructure and assume an advisory and regulatory role.
10. The value of the world food trade in 1997 was about $ 458 billioniii, and is increasing every year, thanks to the expanding world economy, liberalisation in food trade, growing consumer demand and developments in food science, technology, transport and communication sectors.
11. Scientific developments have also allowed a better understanding of the nutritional qualities of foods and their health implications. This has led consumers to become more discriminating in food matters and to demand protection from inferior quality and unsafe foods. Consumers expect that domestic and imported foods will meet basic quality and safety standards and requirements related to food hygiene, labelling and certification, use of food additives, limits for pesticide residues etc.
12. Access by developing countries to food export markets in general, and of the industrialised world in particular, will depend on their capacity to meet the regulatory requirements of importing countries. For most developing countries, agriculture lies at the centre of their economies and food exports are a major source of foreign exchange and income generation for rural and urban workers in agriculture and agro-industrial sectors. The long-term solution for developing countries to sustain a demand for their products in world markets lies in building up the trust and confidence of importers in the quality and safety of their food supply systems. This requires improvement within national food control systems and within industry food quality and safety programmes. Such efforts will greatly help in increasing the relatively small share of developing countries in the international food trade.
13. To have a better understanding of current food quality and safety problems in international food exports from developing countries, it is useful to look at the import detentions by the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA)- the only agency which makes such data public through a monthly import detentions list. US FDA regulates all foods in the US other than meat and poultry products. The data from FDA detention lists for the period July 1996 to June 1997 for imported food from different regions of the world is given in Table 1. The majority of detentions and rejections of foods from developing countries are not related to highly technical or sophisticated requirements. At the top of the list stand food hygiene problems represented by contamination of food with insects and rodent filth. Microbiological contamination comes next, followed by failure to comply with US low acid canned food registration requirements, and then labelling. Over 50% of the rejections are attributable to lack of basic food hygiene, and failure to meet labelling requirements. Dealing with these is well within the means of most developing countries and would go a long way in promoting export trade.
Reason for contravention
|Africa||Latin America and the Caribbean||Europe||Asia||Total|
|Food Additives||2 (0.7 %)||57 (1.5 %)||69 (5.8 %)||426 (7.4 %)||554 (5.0 %)|
|Pesticide residues||0 (0.0)||821 (21.1 %)||20 (1.7 %)||23 (0.4 %)||864 (7.7 %)|
|Heavy Metals||1 (0.3)||426 (10.9 %)||26 (2.2 %)||84 (1.5 %)||537 (4.8 %)|
|Mould||19 (6.3 %)||475 (12.2 %)||27 (2.3%)||49 (0.8 %)||570 (5.1 %)|
|Microbiological contamination||125 (41.3 %)||246 (6.3 %)||159 (13.4 %)||895 (15.5 %)||1425 (12.8 %)|
|Decomposition||9 (3.0 %)||206 (5.3 %)||7 (0.6 %)||668 (11.5 %)||890 (8.0 %)|
|Filth||54 (17.8 %)||1253 (32.2 %)||175 (14.8 %)||2037 (35.2 %)||3519 (31.5 %)|
|Low Acid Canned Food||4 (1.3 %)||142 (3.6 %)||425 (35.9 %)||829 (14.3 %)||1400 (12.5 %)|
|Labelling||38 (12.5%)||201 (5.2%)||237 (20.0%)||622 (10.8%)||1098 (9.8%)|
|Other||51 (16.8 %)||68 (1.7 %)||39 (3.3 %)||151 (2.6 %)||309 (2.8 %)|
|Totals||303 (100 %)||3895 (100 %)||1184 (100 %)||5784 (100 %)||11166 (100 %)|
14. The international trading environment has changed considerably in the light of agreements reached under the auspices of GATT, and the subsequent establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Two Agreements are of particular interest as they introduce a measure of discipline in international trade and are extremely relevant to food safety and quality issues. These are:
15. The SPS Agreement relates to protection of human, animal and plant health and life. The Agreement covers all relevant laws, decrees, regulations; testing, inspection certification and approval procedures; packaging and labelling requirements directly related to food safety. Nations are asked to apply only those measures that are based on scientific principles, and only to the extent necessary and not constituting a disguised restriction on international trade. The Agreement encourages use of international standards where they exist and identifies the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) food standards, guidelines and other recommendations as consistent with the provisions of SPS. Where a WTO member considers that a higher level of sanitary protection than afforded by Codex is necessary, it will have to produce scientific evidence based on valid risk assessment techniques.
16. The TBT Agreement also recognises international standards where they exist. It requires that technical regulations on traditional quality factors, fraudulent practices, packaging, labelling etc. (other than standards covered by SPS) imposed by countries will not be more restrictive on imported products than they are on products produced domestically. Technical measures applied should not create unnecessary hurdles in international trade, have a legitimate purpose and the cost of their implementation should be proportional to the purpose of the measure. If the proposed measure is considered to violate the provisions of any of the two Agreements, it can be challenged and brought before the WTO dispute settlement mechanism.
17. The recognition of international food standards in international food trade is an important element of the WTO Agreements. This provides a level playing field to developing countries. Prior to these Agreements developing exporting countries had to abide by the regulations of importing countries. Now the situation is somewhat different. Firstly, the trading nations should apply international standards, and secondly, in case of a dispute, countries can use the WTO dispute settling mechanism where scientific evidence will be the main determining factor in settling SPS or TBT food regulatory disputes. It would therefore be in the interest of exporting countries to insist on acceptance and use of international standards.
18. Objective 4.1 of the WFS Plan of Action reads "To meet the challenges of and utilise the opportunities arising from the international trade framework established in recent global and regional trade negotiations " and asks the international community to "continue to assist countries to adjust their institutions and standards both for internal and external trade, to food safety and sanitary requirements". The Committee may consider possible follow-up in the light of information given in the paper.
19. More than 800 million people, many of them children, are today hungry and malnourished with serious impact on growth and learning capacity of children and the ability of adults to lead fully productive lives. Moreover, most of these people are to be found in those parts of the world where such food as they have is often contaminated or adulterated, thus reducing its nutritional quality and inflicting severe harm to their nutritional well-being and to their household economies.
20. Food-borne diseases are a worldwide problem of great magnitude, both in terms of human suffering and economic costs. The task of estimating with any accuracy the occurrence of food-borne diseases globally is truly formidable as in most countries it is poorly recorded. It is estimated that almost 70% of the approximate 1.5 billion episodes of diarrhoea that occur in the world annually are directly caused by biological or chemical contamination in foodsiv. Even when such diseases are not fatal, they severely increase the effects of poor diet owing to reduced intake, nutrient losses and mal-absorption, which may lead to mental retardation and physical disabilitiesv.
21. There is no evidence that evaluated food additives or pesticides used in accordance with international recommendations have been the cause of any harm to humans. There is, however, a risk that the inappropriate use of such chemicals can cause health problems. Plant toxins have also been implicated in food safety problems. An example is Lathyrus Sativus adulteration in certain food grains which has led to food-borne disease outbreaks. Other outbreaks have involved contaminants like lead, mercury, cadmium; admixture of mustard seeds with argemone seeds; adulteration of olive oil with mineral oil. Marine-biotoxins have also been implicated in several poisoning episodes. Mould growth by-products called mycotoxins are ubiquitous. Some are powerful carcinogens and can also cause other health problems to humans and animals. There are several recorded cases of mycotoxin contamination having led to serious disease outbreaks.
22. Estimation of the economic consequences of unsafe or contaminated food is complex. It involves consideration of the value of crops and animal products spoiled or destroyed as a result of such contamination, value of rejections/detentions in the export trade, medical treatment costs, loss of output or earnings resulting from morbidity, disability or premature death. It is the last of these economic consequences that is the most difficult to measure, but on a global basis it is probably the single largest element in the entire cost of unsafe food. In addition, the death or disability of the wage-earner may have disastrous consequences for the quality of life of survivors.
23. Some studies have been carried out to assess the total costs incurred by society as a consequence of food-borne illnesses. A 1977 study shows the total annual loss attributable to Salmonellosis in the Federal Republic of Germany to be DM 240 million6, of which 45% represented losses due to human food-borne disease, and the major part of the rest accounting for infections in cattle and poultry. A 1987 study in USA vi estimating Salmonellosis medical costs and productivity losses gives a figure of US $ 1.4 billion as total costs. The same USA study gives a total loss figure of US$ 256 million from Listeriosis illnesses and deaths. In USA alone, costs for loss in productivity due to seven specific pathogens have been estimated to range between US$ 6.5 billion to US$ 13.3 billion annuallyvii.
24. Analysis of the economic impact of a Staphylococcus aureus outbreak in Indiaviii, showed that 41% of the total cost of the outbreak was borne by the affected persons which included loss of wages or productivity loss and other expenses. On the basis of the percentage of per capita income, the economic burden on affected people in India was higher than in the case of a similar outbreak in USA.
25. Food supply systems in developing countries are often fragmented involving a multitude of middlemen. This exposes it to various types of fraudulent practices. These may include simple adulteration of food with something of lesser value or no value at all, or mislabelling the product with the intent of misleading the consumer. Besides the public health impact due to the reduction in the nutrient content of food or food contamination, the consumer is defrauded. Considering that in developing countries, people spend almost 50% of their earnings on food, and among lower-income households this figure may rise to above 70%, the impact of such fraudulent practices can be quite devastatingix.
26. Food is a good indicator of the state of the environment in which it is produced. Monitoring of environmental contaminants in food therefore not only assists in ensuring food safety but can also give early warnings about the state of the environment, such as level of heavy metal contamination to enable appropriate action for maintaining its productivity.
27. Almost all countries have a food control system, howsoever poorly developed, to protect their populations against unsafe, adulterated, or otherwise poor quality food. This also implies that food legislation exists indicating governmental policy towards consumer protection . Why then do large sections of the populations in many developing countries still suffer from the ravages of unsafe, unhygienic or adulterated food, and severe losses in food export trade take place annually due to food not meeting the basic requirements of quality and safety? There are several causes for this unsatisfactory situation which need attention at the level of the food industry and the government. Some of these are listed below :
It may be useful to briefly touch upon some of the basic requirements of food control systems in order to assist the Committee in its deliberations and for member countries to review their facilities with a view to making them more efficient and effective.
28. National food control strategy - Quality and safety of food have to be ensured throughout the food production, processing, storage and distribution chain. This is a multi-sectorial activity and its objectives cannot be reached without the active cooperation of producers, traders, industry and government and also the involvement of the scientific community. The involvement of various sectors of the economy in the development and operation of the food control system is a pre-requisite for its success. This can be achieved through a well-conceived national food control strategy developed with the support of the various participants. The strategy clearly lays down the role of governmental agencies, various sectors of economy, and consumers and establishes mechanisms for cooperation, and the means of dealing with newer or emerging challenges in regard to human health and the national economy. It also ensures that available manpower and financial resources are utilised in a co-ordinated manner to achieve optimal results. Development of such a strategy at national level deserves priority.
29. Food Legislation - In many countries, existing food legislation is outdated needs overall review. The FAO/WHO Model Food Law can provide guidance as necessary. This is a model of an enabling law which covers the basic principles without encumbrances like detailed food regulations that can be written and promulgated separately. The advantage is that detailed regulations, which may need periodic review, can easily be amended, if necessary, without going to the national legislature, which would have been necessary if they were also written into the law. The model food law lays down broad general principles, basic definitions, responsibilities for implementation, inspection and analytical requirements, penalties, powers to make rules etc. Several governments have already revised their laws in conformity with the requirements of the model law. Those who have not done so may consider applicability of the provisions of the model law within their legal system.
30. Food Control Service- A national food control service consists of three main components: food inspectorate; laboratories and analytical staff; and managerial and supervisory staff which not only have the day-to-day management functions but also the required scientific and legal competence. Food inspectors, who are the eyes and ears of the service, should be properly trained. Similarly, the analytical staff has to be fully trained in order to maintain the credibility of the system. FAO/WHO model food law provides for a central advisory committee or body which co-ordinates inputs from different sectors, industry and consumers, and also makes recommendations on food standards and other regulations. As such a committee plays a key role in the operation of the food control system, many governments have already established such advisory bodies. There is, however, considerable scope for improving their competence, effectiveness and efficiency. In addition, in order to deal with the current international food trade scenario and, to protect the interests of the domestic consumer as well of the national economy, it has been recommended by FAO/WHO that governments also set up National Codex Committees. Many governments have taken action along these lines.
31. Compliance Policies- Lack of compliance policies in most of the developing countries is a serious drawback. A compliance policy is an official statement or group of statements that establish specific or general limits to which products, processes or conditions must comply and be, in accordance with relevant laws and regulations. A compliance policy helps in administering, interpreting and assisting in implementing the law. It brings about uniform application of the law, transparency in decisions, provides specific instructions for the agency staff as well as guidance on compliance matters to the industry. Development of a compliance policy calls for a legal authority, resources, scientific expertise, community support, and a periodic review process.
32. Infrastructure Development- Strengthening food control services requires considerable development in infrastructure. The setting up, equipping and maintaining of laboratories require heavy investment. Capacities of the systems have to be built up periodically and this needs resources. Governments will provide such resources only when they have recognised the economic as well as health implications of food control. Notably, economic ministries usually have a better record in mobilising resources for adequate development of infrastructure and food control capacities. Assistance may be sought from international agencies like FAO, WHO, World Bank and others for this purpose. However, this will depend upon the priority that national authorities give to food control.
33. There have been success stories where the strength of one developing country has been matched with the needs of another with mutual benefit for both. The UN system has been encouraging this approach of Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC). Food control can benefit from this approach, particularly in manpower development and capacity building. Emergence of a number of regional economic groupings, growing food security needs, and trading interests of many developing, have improved the scope for TCDC. This needs to be encouraged.
34. The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission was set up in 1962 and has the major objectives of protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in food trade. It is an intergovernmental body engaged in preparing international food standards and other relevant recommendations which promote quality and safety of food. It brings together scientists, technical experts, government regulators and international consumer and industry organizations. Over the past 37 years it has produced over 200 food standards; nearly 3000 maximum residue limits for pesticides, veterinary drugs, mycotoxins, environmental contaminants; codes of hygienic practices; a general standard for food labelling; a code of ethics for international trade in food and a wide range of guidelines and recommendations for governments and industry. Codex has proved to be one of the most successful programmes of the specialised agencies of the UN, contributing to international harmonisation in the important area of quality and safety of food. Under the SPS agreement the Codex standards, guidelines and other recommendations have been recognised as bench marks for international harmonisation. Codex standards also serve as the basic texts for resolution of trade disputes. TBT also recognises international standards. The work done by Codex in the fields of food quality and safety, consumer protection, and issues related to international food trade is so comprehensive and scientifically-based, that the governments of developing countries are well advised to make full use of this in their efforts to improve their food control. Developing countries should be more actively involved in the work of the Commission to ensure that the interests of their consumer and their national economic interests are adequately considered.
35. For almost three decades, FAO has been the lead international agency providing technical assistance in the area of food control. Such assistance has covered many aspects of the problem, including: advice on review and drafting of food laws and regulations; setting up and strengthening of laboratories; assisting in national food contamination monitoring programmes; workshops for development of national food control strategies; training and manpower development in various fields; assistance in improving industry food quality and safety programmes, strengthening of national food control infrastructures; surveys on specific food safety and consumer protection problems like street foods; promoting centres of excellence for training; supplying laboratory reference materials; quality control and inspection for exports; certification systems for food exports; harmonisation of food regulations at regional levels; promoting TCDC; and, strengthening national Codex Committees.
36. The need for assistance is obvious and has in fact grown many-fold as a result of the WTO agreements. The basic problem however, is the paucity of resources. Realising the importance of the subject in terms of food security, it should be possible to have the co-operation and support of financial institutions like World Bank, Regional Development Banks and bilateral donors. SPS agreement refers to the principle of "equivalence" between one country's protection measures and those of another. It encourages use of mutual recognition agreements between countries. The agreement also asks food-importing countries to provide technical assistance to developing food-exporting countries to enable them to export to those countries. It may be worth considering how to institutionalise and co-ordinate measures for such assistance for the general good of the developing countries and their food control systems in particular.
37. Food security exists only when all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Current projections predict a 31% increase in world population between 1996 and 2020, with almost 98% of the increase occurring in developing countries. It is also predicted that over the period 1995 to 2020, the urban population in developing countries will double. Such growth in global population in general and urban population in particular, will pose greater stress on food production, handling and distribution systems and also on the general environment in developing countries. This could lead to potentially serious food quality and safety problems. Lack of technical and financial resources in developing countries will aggravate food insecurity unless timely initiatives are taken to deal with such problems. National food control systems protect domestic consumers from unsafe, adulterated and otherwise poor quality food. By improving the efficiency of the food system, food availability is increased and the confidence of foreign buyers in the quality and safety of the country's food exports is promoted.
38. The recent WTO SPS and TBT Agreements, have vastly changed the current international food trade scenario. The Agreements accept Codex international food standards and its other recommendations as bench marks for introduction of national food protection measures. Nations imposing more stringent requirements for food imports into their countries have to do so on the basis of valid scientific. As the WTO Agreements provide a level playing field for international trade in food, it would be in the interest of developing countries to accept and implement Codex standards. This also calls for their greater participation in Codex work. The information generated within Codex is of great significance in enhancing food security at national and local levels.
39. Continuing changes in food production and distribution systems, emerging issues in safety and quality of foods, shifts in consumer and industry demands, and the requirements of international markets as well as those of national food security, necessitate periodic review and updating of national food control systems. Governments must recognise the urgent need of strengthening food control systems and infrastructure and take appropriate measures to protect the domestic consumer, strengthen national food security, and protect the country's food export interests.
40. To support early achievement of WFS objectives and goals, the Committee on Food Security may consider making the following recommendations to governments and concerned international organizations.
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