Hungry to find out more about the role of standards on World Food Safety Day, we put questions to Tom Heilandt from the UN’s commission on food safety, Codex Alimentarius.
Why do we need to highlight the importance of food safety? Aren’t the laws and regulations enough to give us confidence in what we buy and eat?
You could ask the same question about road safety, for example. Even though cars are getting safer with each new model, the work is never done. We have to continue to raise awareness so that we don’t become complacent. When it comes to food, it’s not so straightforward. Our modern food systems are complex, and nothing should be taken for granted. Unsafe food is not food but a vector for disease and death. Far too many people are affected every year by food-borne diseases.
Some of us have access to abundant, safe and nutritious food, and much of that is assured by a well-developed legal framework. Enforcing such a framework, together with improving consumer awareness and the readiness of industry to do its part in ensuring food safety, are all important steps. But in many countries, especially in places where food security is still a problem, food safety systems are less well developed and unsafe food imposes a further burden on people whose immune systems may already be challenged by malnutrition.
Covid-19 has shaken our world and many parts of the world are experiencing lockdowns and confinement, disruptions to food supplies and much more. How has this shaped our attitudes and behaviours around food?
The big fear here is not food safety but food insecurity, when supply chains are interrupted as workers fall ill or borders are closed, and new administrative rules are imposed. These may have good intentions to protect people, but every restrictive measure can have side effects and disrupt trade. COVID-19 has caught all of us by surprise and called in question many things that we had taken for granted previously.
It is important to remind everyone that we have no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted via food. This is a message that will need to be repeated and reinforced for some time to come, in order to dispel any misconceptions that may have built up.
What extra challenges are we facing due to the global pandemic, and what can we do to protect ourselves?
Consumers are paying closer attention to food hygiene because of the increased overall attention to personal hygiene. That’s a good thing! It would be an overstatement to suggest that food safety has generally improved, since so many other variables have changed. In fact, there are possible negative effects on our food safety systems, particularly with regard to capacity for food inspections, which may have been reduced as a result of the pandemic. We’ve seen increases in online food sales as people avoid going out. I am sure this will be a lasting trend and it can bring challenges in food quality and safety controls of new online businesses.
Food safety, as I said above, is critical to all of us, and we, as consumers, have to play a critical role in it. We believe, at this time, it is more critical than ever, that although COVID-19 does not directly constitute a food safety problem, we need to be vigilant to keep our food safe. Our routines have been disrupted and with that there is a risk for food safety to be compromised. The last thing we would want in addition to the present pandemic is a major food safety incident.
Our message for World Food Safety Day 2020 aims at reassuring consumers and producers: we must continue to be vigilant, just as before, to ensure that tomorrow’s food is still safe.
Codex Alimentarius is aimed at improving food safety throughout the food supply chain, locally and internationally. It references a number of ISO standards such as ISO 22000. How can international standards help to ensure food safety?
International Standards can and do serve as the guidepost for all. The global standards of Codex Alimentarius, like the ones from ISO, provide valuable information to governments, industry and consumers worldwide. They serve as a reference, as a point of common understanding and mutual recognition, that enables mutual understanding and provides a foundation for the safe, global trade of foods.
Standards also help us to prepare for the discussions of tomorrow: they are important in all situations but especially in times of heightened insecurity, they are something to hold on to and a good starting point to develop new guidelines to address unexpected situations, now and in future.
That brings me to an important point for Codex: our strength has been, since 1963, to bring the world together to set standards and build consensus in a collaborative, inclusive and transparent way. Not all, but a lot, of that was done in physical meetings involving hundreds of participants. We and a lot of the UN system will need to reinvent ourselves and the way we are working. I think some of that we could learn from ISO.
What is your favourite food?
I have many favourite foods depending on where I am and which season it is. This year, the fact that I have been teleworking from home in Germany meant I could binge on my favourite spring food: white asparagus with early potatoes and melted butter, accompanied with a crisp salad and white wine – followed by fresh strawberries and cream!
A very simple meal that hardly requires any preparation; it’s all about fresh, seasonal produce and enjoying cultural traditions.