SAFE FOOD AND NUTRITIOUS DIET FOR THE CONSUMER
The responsibility for safe and nutritious food is shared by all players in the food system and the challenge is to build comprehensive food systems that ensure the long term involvement and commitment of all concerned parties.
In spite of these scientific and technological advances, and the world-wide overall improvement of food control systems, food-borne diseases persist as a cause of serious concern for the consumer. Food is the likely vector of multiple biological, chemical or physical hazards and certainly of several nutritional problems. Consumer perception is also evolving, with a perceived increase in the social unacceptability of food risks, at least in developed countries. Consumer perception also relates to access and availability to a healthy and nutritious diet.
A number of ways have been explored to assure the consumer that the food consumed is safe and nutritious. One such way advocated by FAO is the development of a comprehensive and effective food system which ensures both safety and nutrition. The operational objective of a comprehensive food system should be to ensure that foods meet science-based safety characteristics, while ensuring the appropriate balance of other qualities taking into consideration other relevant factors such as technical feasibility, costs considerations, as well as social, ethical and environmental concerns through the integrated activities of all stakeholders- both private and public. A comprehensive food system has a number of attributes:
In developed countries, food systems have many of the attributes of comprehensive and effective systems. Nevertheless, to improve the effectiveness of food systems in developed countries, the priority is to make substantial improvements which will help regain or enhance consumer confidence. This includes increasing the resilience of the source systems along the food chain, enhancing the scientific base for decisions, and providing organisational support for effective participation of all parties in the institutional debate.
The extremely diverse food systems in developing countries suffer from a number of weaknesses. They are not always as organised, developed, comprehensive or effective as in developed countries. They are heavily challenged by problems which adversely affect the security, safety and quality of food supplies whereas, at the same time, people in these countries are exposed to a wider range of potential food safety risks. There is often, on a global scale, a lacuna in awareness of consumers about food safety matters associated with a lack of organised mobilisation of consumer groups and interests. Building comprehensive and effective food safety systems in developing countries (as well as in countries in transition) implies basically a capacity building approach.
In this context, FAO is calling for a food safety and nutritious diet strategy using the food-system approach that includes:
At the international level:
At the national level:
At both national and international levels:
SAFE FOOD AND NUTRITIOUS DIET FOR THE CONSUMER
This paper sets forth the rationale for building a comprehensive and effective food system that ensures safe food and nutritious diet for the consumer and outlines their objectives and general attributes. It draws upon the outcomes of the Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators (Marrakesh, 28-30 January 2002) and of the Pan European Conference on Food Safety and Quality (Budapest, 25-28 February 2002). Reference is also made to the chapter on food safety contained in the assessment document entitled "Food Safety and Quality" presented for discussion in the CFS during the week preceding the WFS-fyl.
1 - INTRODUCTION: SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
Food systems stretch from producers to consumers (i.e. from "farm to table") and are international in scope. Ensuring (i) the adequate availability, (ii) the nutritional adequacy, and (iii) the safety of the food supply has become increasingly complex and requires substantial efforts from all parties involved throughout the food system. Over the years, as agriculture and marketing systems have evolved to provide food to a growing population, complex processes built both on culture and food choices as well as on science and technology have been developed to identify, evaluate and manage the risks associated with the food supply. However, in spite of these scientific and technological advances, and the world-wide overall improvement of food control systems, food-borne diseases persist as a cause of serious concern for the consumer.
While issues related to meeting availability of food and the nutritional adequacy of the diet are being addressed, public awareness of food safety issues has increased dramatically in developed countries. This is largely due to concerns over BSE, outbreaks of food-borne diseases as a result of microbial contamination of foods, or by toxic chemicals, such as dioxins. Concerns about the safety of genetically modified organisms and the resultant media amplification has influenced the perception of the related risk associated with these developments. Food safety is a matter for increasing concern in developing countries, as well. However, it is often not viewed as a priority in these societies, particularly among the poor consumers.
Food safety is but a part of a wide spectrum of issues which go beyond the avoidance of food-borne biological pathogens, chemical toxicants, and other hazards. Consumers in developed countries now expect more than safe food. They expect food to meet their nutritional needs, to be wholesome and tasty, and to be produced ethically respecting the environment, animal health and welfare. In developing countries on the other hand, concerns include related issues such as access and availability of a nutritious diet throughout the year at relatively low costs. As reaffirmed by the 1996 World Food Summit, access to safe and nutritious food is a right of all people. The provision of safe and nutritious food is intimately associated to food security. It constitutes an effective platform for poverty alleviation and social and economic development, while opening and enlarging opportunities for trade. However, ensuring food safety has a cost, and excessive food safety requirements may impose constraints on production, storage and distribution systems, which may possibly result in trade barriers or impede competitiveness.
The responsibility for safe and nutritious food is shared by all players in the food system which includes those who produce, transform or handle the food from production to storage and to its ultimate consumption. It also involves the interplay of scientific, legal/regulatory, social and economic forces, both nationally and globally. The challenge is to build comprehensive food systems that ensure the long term involvement and commitment of all concerned parties to ensure that the result is the provision of safe food and a nutritious diet for the consumer.
2 - CAUSES FOR CONCERN: THE EVOLVING FOOD HAZARDS
Food is the likely vector of multiple biological, chemical or physical hazards and certainly of several nutritional problems. Some examples are highlighted in Box 1 below.
The potential increase of microbial food-borne diseases may be due to:
Chemical hazards need to be evaluated and monitored, with particular regard to:
For both microbiological and chemical hazards, technological factors may interact in two ways:
Consumer perception is also evolving, with a perceived increase in the social unacceptability of food risks, at least in developed countries. As food becomes objectively safer, the remaining and occasional risks tend to incur a sense of "outrage" disproportionate to the incident and are even less tolerated by the public at large. There has been a world-wide call for democratisation of risk decisions related to food safety, with expectations for "stakeholder participation", "openness" and "transparency".
Consumer perception also relates to access and availability to a healthy and nutritious diet. Concerns related to the prevention of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer in later life and their impact on the quality of life and ageing, are increasing in the developed world along with food safety. Consumer demands have increased awareness of the nutrient content of the diet and issues related to providing adequate and reliable information along with nutrition labelling of processed food. These are important issues that may need to be adequately addressed when promoting nutritious healthy diets to a consumer who is increasingly sensitive and vocal about food and nutrition issues.
3 - A NEW APPROACH TO PROVIDING SAFE FOOD AND A NUTRITIOUS DIET TO THE CONSUMER: BUILDING COMPREHENSIVE FOOD SYSTEMS
A number of ways have been explored to assure the consumer that the food consumed is safe and nutritious. One such way advocated by FAO is the development of a comprehensive and effective food system which ensures both safety and nutrition. This section summarises the objectives and attributes of a comprehensive food system, with the aim of providing a benchmark for evaluating strategies for ensuring food safety and nutritious diets to the consumer globally.
3.1 - Objectives of the food system
The operational objective of a comprehensive food system should be to ensure that foods meet science-based safety characteristics, while ensuring the appropriate balance of other qualities taking into consideration other relevant factors such as technical feasibility, costs considerations, as well as social, ethical and environmental concerns through the integrated activities of all stakeholders- both private and public. A wide range of activities implicated in this process will include adequate monitoring and surveillance; science-based research and development; risk analysis, including risk assessment, risk management and risk communication; good agricultural and manufacturing practices from primary production to final preparation and handling; and appropriate information, technology transfer, education and technical assistance.
With the growing numbers of informed and vocal consumers, there is an evolving need to empower consumers by improving the information available to them about foods and diets and by enhancing their ability and desire to seek an adequate and quality diet which promotes health. Consumers need access to wholesome food, and to a diverse diet of adequate nutritive value with the right organoleptic properties. They need to know about the nature and constituents of a varied and adequate diet that promotes nutritional wellbeing throughout the life cycle, from infancy to old age. They need to have access to information which will help prevent both under and overnutrition and provide them with the choice in selecting and access to proper food for a nutritious diet at a reasonable cost.
The development of a comprehensive food system should integrate the identified needs of consumers, clarify the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders and ensure promotion co-ordination and planning related to prevention, intervention, control, response, and communication.
3.2 - General attributes of a comprehensive food system:
3.3 The different partners and their roles and responsibilities:
A comprehensive food system establishes the roles and responsibilities of the numerous and diverse stakeholders in the food chain and provides the links that are necessary to build a participative, co-ordinated and cohesive framework for action. It needs to be compatible with the overall approach to ensure human health as well as animal and plant health.
Through sustained advocacy and education, societies can empower consumers to make appropriate choices for a safe and nutritious diet. Informed consumers are a powerful means of moulding markets and hence ensuring the availability and selection of foods that provide essential nutrients that form a nutritious diet. Ensuring that food standards, quality and safety go hand in hand with providing nutritional information and labelling, plays an important role in furthering consumer choice and confidence.
Role of public sector
Public authorities are in the best position to influence how the food system works efficiently. They have primary responsibility for guiding the system with the aid of clear and rational national food laws which should normally include a consultative process involving all stakeholders. The national food law should ensure the regulatory and enforcement authority of government and clarify their interface with other partners. Regulations must address all aspects of the entire food system from production to consumption.
Public authorities have the responsibility to facilitate the development and use of risk analysis through its three components: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. Public authorities should create an environment favourable to the interplay of risk analysis elements and the participation of all stakeholders in an open and transparent process.
Public authorities also need to build effective surveillance and monitoring systems, to develop education and research with a view to identifying, addressing, responding and adapting to evolving concerns, new technologies and changing consumer's needs. In association with these activities, they have also a primary role in collecting and disseminating to all interested parties, all information pertinent to food safety in a timely and effective manner.
The role and responsibility of public authorities in the development and implementation of an effective food safety system is dependant on adequate human resources and financial support and needs to be practical, efficient and cost-effective.
Role of the agricultural producers, food industry and other private partners
Private partners include producers and importers, processors, marketers, food services, trade organisations, professional societies and private organisations. Within the overall food production chain, the private sector has the primary role of bringing food to the tables of consumers. It should ensure that the food produced meets the food safety requirements established by public authorities (national and/or importing country's requirements, or standards determined by international organisations), while giving due consideration to consumer concerns and expectations.
To be effective in these tasks, the private sector must maintain close interaction with the public sector and with the consumers. Private partners need to be involved in the institutional debate about food safety issues. They have an essential role in bringing appropriate information to, and sharing information and data with, other partners in the food chain and with other stakeholders, in order to participate in the development of appropriate policies.
Role of consumers
Consumers have an important and critical role in a comprehensive food system. Consumer awareness of food safety issues, as well as knowledge of good practices to protect their food through preparation, storage and consumption, is essential. Consumers also play an important role in expressing their need to have simple, credible and reliable information related to food and nutrition that will promote nutritional wellbeing by avoiding the consequences of both under and over nutrition. They can also be powerful forces that can direct the market place to provide access and make available fresh and processed food that constitutes a healthy diet. Awareness of the linkages between food, nutrition and health are crucial in enabling consumers to play their important role in ensuring appropriate food systems in both developing and developed societies,.
Consumer organisations play a crucial role in advocacy of food safety, quality, nutritional and related matters and assist greatly in providing education and information. As other stakeholders, they should be involved throughout the risk analysis process.
4 - AN OVERVIEW OF THE CURRENT SCENARIO AND POTENTIAL REMEDIES:
This section focuses on identifying and contrasting the main features of the food systems existing in developed and developing countries, to illustrate what improvements are needed.
4.1 - In developed countries
In developed countries, food systems have evolved and progressed with time, incorporating many scientific, technological, legal, and societal advances. As a result, in developed countries, the food safety systems have many of the attributes of a comprehensive and effective system. They usually involve the inter-related activities of interested parties. They are guided by national food laws and regulations, encompass food control systems and activities, and address the essential functions of monitoring, surveillance, inspection, enforcement, hazard containment and outbreak management, research, education and information. To diverse degrees, these systems have moved, or are moving, to a more science-based approach, associating the development of quality and safety assurance schemes with the progressive development and implementation of risk analysis
Nevertheless, food safety systems in developed countries generally suffer from three main shortcomings. First, and in spite of a permanent improvement of their performance the source systems are still vulnerable to hazard, as demonstrated by recent food crises, e.g. BSE or dioxin. This is mainly due to a lack of preparedness and to a defective global organisation for approaching food safety issues. Second, food safety and food control systems are facing tremendous pressures with regard to the rapid identification, detection, analysis of, and response to emerging hazards and the challenges associated with adequate monitoring and control of the increasing volume of food produced, processed and traded. Third, and in spite of recent efforts to implement the wide use of risk analysis, there is still a serious deficit of information sharing, communication and participation.
To improve the effectiveness of food systems in developed countries, the priority is to make substantial improvements which will help regain or enhance consumer confidence This implies in particular:
4.2 - In developing countries
There is often, on a global scale, a lacuna in awareness of consumers about food safety matters associated with a lack of organised mobilisation of consumer groups and interests. As a result, developing countries are hardly able to address sufficiently food safety and related issues. This situation results in lost opportunities for developing countries from taking full advantage of their economic potential by operating efficiently in the world food trading system.
Building comprehensive and effective food safety systems in developing countries (as well as in countries in transition) implies basically a capacity building approach. This should begin with a thorough evaluation of the situation in each country, to identify the exact needs and priorities and to formulate the appropriate interventions required. In the food safety area, these interventions might encompass, in an incremental manner, one or several of the following: development of a national food safety programme and/or national food control strategy; updating food laws and regulations; strengthening food inspection services; upgrading food laboratories; enhancing the infrastructure level at all relevant stages of the food chains, with particular regard to common places of concern such as storage, transformation, handling, or transportation, and facilitating the development and use of good practices at each link, quality and safety assurance schemes in food production, and development of food inspection and certification systems.
In parallel, activities should address the need for enhancing the scientific and technical expertise, and ability to carry out risk assessments with particular regard to developing practicable methodologies to assess consumption patterns and developing exposure assessments. Application of risk analysis should be pursued along with the improvement of information and communication systems including early warning, problem prevention and crisis management. The involvement of stakeholders in the formulation of the needs for improvement of the food safety system and on capacity building activities is an essential element of success and should be pursued. Alliances should be built between public and private institutions involved in food safety in developing countries with their counterparts in developed countries. This will assist in facilitating technology transfer, in building partnerships, and finally, in improving both internal and external confidence in the effectiveness of food systems to comprehensively and effectively address food safety issues.
It has to be emphasised that the development of these activities, driven by the country's needs, requires adequate investment. The very recent Financing for Development Conference in Monterrey emphasised the difficulties of developing countries to mobilise adequate resources for development and stressed the need for international efforts and solidarity in this field.
5 - CONCLUSION: THE NEED FOR A STRATEGY FOR PROVIDING A SAFE AND NUTRITIOUS DIET FOR THE CONSUMER
Safe food and nutritious diets can no longer be the luxury of the rich, they are the right of everybody. Enhancing the safety and quality of food requires political will and investment. Societies have to decide the level of those investments according to their current situation and based on cost-benefit considerations. Providing safe and nutritious food to consumers everywhere requires a commitment to quality throughout the food chain.. Food producers, handlers and marketers have the opportunity to benefit from investment and technical development in food safety and nutrient quality to meet the consumer-driven demands on the sector. The opportunity exists to reap better returns for value-added products and to reduce quantitative and qualitative losses. Programmes for capacity-building and technical assistance covering a farm (or sea) to table systems-management approach will be required. Development planners, rural extension services, veterinary and fisheries services, academic institutions, regulatory authorities and civil society organisations will all have to be involved. In this context, FAO is calling for a food safety and nutritious diet strategy using the food-system approach that includes:
At the international level:
Identification, assessment and management of food safety risks: to provide science-based information and harmonise procedures, inter alia through the enhanced work of FAO/WHO expert bodies;
Advice and information on nutritional requirements and healthy diets: to advise consumers on how to make the best of their foods and to adopt nutrition patterns which minimise the risk of diet related diseases;
At the national level:
Capacity building through formulation of food quality, safety and nutrition programmes: to meet country-specific needs and take into account the international and regional contexts;
At the national and international levels:
Resource mobilisation for capacity building to build efficient programmes and strategies for safe food and nutritious diets - "from farm to table".