Food safety and quality

Food safety: where to go from here?


Markus Lipp, FAO Senior Food Safety Officer, spoke at the opening of the 16th Dubai International Food Safety Conference at the Dubai World Trade Center on 1 November. The three-day conference focused on strategic ways to maintain food safety and food security, including through the use of innovations and technologies to strengthen the supply chain. More than 3 000 international experts representing international organizations, national institutions and private sector entities, were in attendance.

Here is what he said:

Excellencies, Ministers, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning and good day to all of you.

My sincere thanks to Her Excellency Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Minister of Climate Change and Environment and His Excellency Eng. Dawood Al Hajri Director General of Dubai Municipality, for having just shared with us their valuable perspectives and insights and reminded us to strengthen our efforts and collaborations to ensure that all people enjoy access to safe and nutritious food.

Furthermore, my sincere thanks of course also to the Municipality of Dubai and the Government of the United Arab Emirates for inviting me to speak to and for hosting us so graciously in this fantastic venue.

The programme of this conference promises exciting insights in a large variety of topics that are of acute relevance to all of us.

I am emphasizing "all of us", as this is very much in line with the motto of the World Food Safety Day, which we celebrate on 7 June every year - Food safety is everyone's business.

I would like to invite all of you already today to please join us, that is FAO and WHO (World Health Organization), in celebrating the next World Food Safety Day on 7 June 2023. You can find an updated guide to help you with ideas and templates soon on the FAO, WHO or Codex website.

Like many other things in our world, food safety is tremendously complex and complicated if one looks a little closer at what it take to keep our food safe. But first, please allow me to step back a moment and take a simpler approach.

After access to air and water, safe food is the third most urgent basic human need. We all need access to safe food.

Simply put: the one and main criteria that makes food, well... food, is the fact that it is considered safe to eat.

Any plant or any animal, or any product derived from them, is considered food as long as and as soon as it is considered safe enough to eat. Hence, the notion of "safe to eat" is what separates food from any other product and material.

Of course, after the requirement for food being safe to eat, there is the need to balance our diets in accordance to our nutritional requirements. But food safety comes first, food can only convey its nutritional benefits if it does not make consumers sick.

With food being so essential to life in general, food safety is an essential pre-condition of many of the SDGs; in other words, when food is not safe, we will not be able to achieve many of the SDGs. Just to give a few examples:

  • SDG2: Zero hunger; in the words of the former FAO Director General: if food is not safe, food security cannot be achieved
  • SDG3: Good health and well-being; that almost does not need any explanation...foodborne illnesses are the antithesis to good health and well-being as almost everyone will know from their own experience
  • SDG4: Quality education; children suffering from chronic foodborne illness cannot develop to their full potential
  • SDG8: Decent work and economic growth: agriculture and food production is an important area of development and employment for many countries

When I was thinking about the topic of my speech for today, I came up with several titles of course, but one seems to capture it most elegantly in its simplicity: Food safety: where to go from here?

Allow me to explain.

While we all want - no, need - our food to be safe, we all must play our role to help make our food safe, whether in kitchens, as a food producer, as a government official, or as anyone else working within the vast and complex food system - we must all work together to keep our food safe.

Food safety is complicated, chemicals can taint the food, too much of a normally good thing can become a health problem, microbes can grow and spoil food, foreign objects such as stones, metal or plastic pieces may render food unfit for consumption, etc.

No single person can understand, evaluate and control all possible food safety risks that may originate in our agrifood systems. Which means that we need to trust that others perform their part in keeping the food safe until the moment it reaches our plates and bowls.

This is one of the most important roles of the governments of every country: to build, maintain and govern the environment of trust consumer need in order to know that the food they can purchase is safe for them. That the food safety laws are appropriate, that inspections are working, that regulations are being enforced, that concerns are being addressed, and much, much more must need to be in place for this trust to emerge.

For my question: where to do we go from here for food safety, one of the answers is: we must go towards an environment that builds, nurtures and maintains trust, trust in the safety of our food. Trust in the fact that indeed all actors in the food system have food safety on their mind. We all know that in the end, if it is not safe, it is not food.

Making and keeping food safe is a complex task, not only does it need the input and knowledge of all farmers, food technologists, cooks and more, but we need the input of numerous scientific disciplines to find the effective levers, tools and techniques that actually can make our food safe.

FAO is supporting governments in this regard by convening scientific expert committees, some of which have met since 1956 without interruption. FAO, in many cases jointly with the WHO, is convening leading experts from around the world to provide the science-based risk assessments for food additives, chemical and microbiological contaminants in food, residues from pesticides and/or veterinary drugs in food, and for many other food safety related topics such as allergens and much more. All the outcomes of these risk assessments are publicly available for everyone to use.

Much of this work is requested by the Members of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (jointly organized by FAO and WHO as well) to support the development of international food safety standards with the goal to protect consumer health everywhere and facilitate fair practices in trade.

To understand in detail what hazards can be present in our food, and ultimately, the question that is of real interest: what is the risk to the health of consumers; that is the core of the science of risk assessment.

Hazards can be and in fact are numerous. Scientists determine the risks, which is how likely is it that consumers are even affected by a specific hazard; for comparison, think about electricity, we have it in our houses, we use it always, and it is safe for us humans as we are almost never exposed to it at dangerous levels. So the hazard is there, the risk to humans however is very low, at least when electricity is used as intended.

But food is not like electricity. In fact, food is not like any other consumer product. Every single human needs food, however, what exactly each of us likes as food or even considers to be food is a staggering, overwhelming and dizzying variety of products.

So many different plant and animal products are consumed by humans, prepared in so very many different ways. So with almost certainty we can say that no two people have the exact same mental picture of what is food.

Even more, there is no social activity that is not connected somewhere, somehow to food. We bond over food, we grieve with food, we celebrate with food, just to name a few.

Hence, food is not only essential to satisfy our nutritional needs, it is essential to satisfy our emotional needs and to build cultures. No other consumer product has this deep emotional, cultural and psychological connection to every single person on this planet.

And then we have to talk about to food safety. This is difficult with food being such an emotional topic.

Here my second answer as to where we go from here: we, food safety scientists, have to learn to communicate better. We cannot only rely on dry scientific explanation to relay difficult facts and concepts to consumers. It is very difficult to build trust this way, the trust we all need to believe in our food control systems.

So far, I have only spoken about the traditional food safety risk assessment and the need to communicate to all stakeholders, which of course, translates to the need to communicate to very many people with varying interests, background, knowledge and risk level, but all with the same desire of wanting to be able to enjoy safe food.

Risk assessment and risk communication are of course two of the pillars of the risk analysis framework that every food regulatory agencies applies. The third pillar is risk management, one of the noblest tasks of policy makers. Scientific risk assessment is only one part of the equation, affordability, economic viability, cultural, religious and other priorities and much more are all valid interests of citizens in every country - interests that policy makers need to balance. Adding to the complexity of food safety in action AND to the complexity of communication about food safety.

And all this is on top of the fact that science is not static, that technological innovations never stop, that tomorrow we will always know more and understand more than we did yesterday.

Exciting developments that are approaching the area of regulatory science in food safety are of course shaped by big data approaches, by an increase understanding of genomics, proteomics and multiple other -omics techniques and the progress our scientists are making in the understanding of the importance of the microbiome to human health. Of course, all these topics are linked, fuel each other’s development and push boundaries in other scientific areas, for example bioinformatics.

One of the consequences are now very interesting and complicated discussion not only on how we can store, organize and handle the exponential growth of data - we are talking now about "data lakes" that nicely illustrates for me on how we, today, think about the vastness and amorphousness of data.

Even more important is the question of meta-data, all relevant information that accompanies a piece of data; questions about data ownership are difficult enough, but questions about meta-data sharing are even more difficult, especially in the light that there are legitimate interest to protect the value of some data and meta-data for example as it pertains to patients’ rights, personal identifiable information, confidential business information and much more. And the conundrum here is that big data only reveal their value when copious meta-data are available, the very same connection that is of concern for data privacy.

And of course, science is not protected from hype. As with all new technologies, also here predictions are quickly made, most predictions vastly over-estimate certain impacts and underestimate others, yet promises are made and fears stoked. There is much we learned about the microbiome, or bioinformatics used to decode the genomes of species, just to pick two examples. But we still struggle to understand some aspects.

It is hard if not currently impossible to validate bioinformatics pipelines, which means that at face value, it is not possible to independently demonstrate that the approaches chosen are valid. This does not mean that the results are wrong, they can be wrong and we may not know immediately. Hence, here as elsewhere, not all initial findings can be confirmed to be true.

Much has been learned about the microbiome, we know it is very important to human health, we know it can be disturbed. But we are not very certain about its composition and we do not know currently how a "normal" microbiome looks like, we cannot readily describe "normal" here.

Both these problems will be overcome, it is almost inevitable that these scientific problems will be resolved. But we are not there yet. And hence, we food safety professionals, have to make careful assessments with regard what can be used for regulatory decision making and what cannot be used.

And so far, we have only explored the science side that makes food safety complicated.

Food is produced through a food system, where many aspects are intrinsically connected.

A range of pressures including rapid population growth, urbanization, growing wealth, but also growing inequality are challenging our food systems’ ability to provide nutritious food, and to contribute to enhanced livelihood opportunities in an environmentally sustainable way. Our food systems are contributing to, and affected by, extreme weather events as associated with climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Responding to these challenges requires a systems-based approach that addresses the range and complexities in a holistic and sustainable manner.

A sustainable food system is one that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generation is not compromised. This means that it is profitable throughout, ensuring economic sustainability, it has broad-based benefits for society, securing social sustainability, and that it has a positive or neutral impact on the natural resource environment, safeguarding the sustainability of the environment.

This introduces a few more dimension into policy making. We all understand that we have to transform our food systems to become sustainable, to make sure that we can continue to life in a way that does not further deplete planetary resources beyond the rate of recovery.

We will therefore have to meet quite a series of challenges at the same time: we need safe food that is accessible to all - we need enough of it - we need to change to sustainable practices; and we need it all at the same time.

A formidable task indeed, and a task that will require more discussion, open discussion that are focused on finding global solutions for global problems. We cannot easily afford to close our eyes to the bigger context.

To best assist our Members, FAO is partnering regularly with WHO to tackle the difficult questions of food safety. The mission, vision and capabilities of both organizations providing ample synergies in this regard.

As you likely heard from various news channels already, FAO as well as WHO, have developed food safety strategies for the respective organizations. While WHO's food safety strategy has been approved by the World Health Assembly earlier this year, FAO's food safety strategy is currently being discussed by the relevant FAO governance committees.

The strategies from both organizations are compatible and complimentary and FAO together with WHO have committed to develop a joint implementation programme to highlight the compatible and complementary nature of both strategies.

Just to provide you with a little preview.

FAO's food safety strategy is built around four strategic outcomes:

  • Inter-governmental and multi-stakeholder engagement in intersectoral coordination of food safety governance is reinforced at all levels
  • Sound scientific advice and evidence are provided as the foundation for food safety decision-making
  • National food control systems are further strengthened and are continuously improved
  • Public and private stakeholder collaboration is promoted to ensure food safety management and controls throughout agrifood systems.

We believe that these four pillars will support FAO's food safety vision: Safe food for all people at all times and FAO's food safety mission: To support Members in continuing to improve food safety at all levels by (a) providing scientific advice and (b) strengthening their food safety capacities for efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable agrifood systems.

We invite you to join us in our efforts to ensure that food is safe, and available to all people. To achieve this, we will need to work together. Food is unique in the fact that for every single person it is of equal importance that the food they eat is safe and that there is sufficient access to it.

Thank you for your attention and I will leave you with my best wishes for what I believe will be an exciting conference here in Dubai.

Read more about the conference here

Photo: ©Dubai Municipality

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