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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Don’t Let Food Safety Get Lost in Translation
Ensuring safety of the international food supply is as critical as ensuring domestic safety
by Jorge Hernandez
Last year, millions of Americans looked to the nation’s capital for the latest news on pending healthcare legislation, while other bills that are critical to our nation’s health and well-being worked their way through Congress virtually unnoticed. The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 passed in the House, and the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) is coming up for debate in the Senate in early 2010. These bills represent the first comprehensive overhaul of American food safety laws in decades. Eliminating foodborne illness could save an estimated 5,000 lives, avoid 325,000 hospitalizations, and prevent millions of food-related illnesses each year. According to the USDA, foodborne illness represents an economic cost of about $5.6 billion annually.
But, as important as these bills are, those in the food industry know that food safety does not stop at national borders. More and more of the foods we package, transport, and prepare for our customers originate outside the United States. In 1998, the United States imported $41 billion in food products. By 2007, this number had grown to $78 billion worth of food coming into the country through 300 ports of entry. Approximately 15% of our nation’s total food supply is imported. And imports account for 50% to 60% of fresh fruits and fish, according to the latest U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates. Assuring the safety of our international food supply is as critical to Americans as assuring the safety of domestically grown foods.
Currently, the FDA inspects roughly 1% of imported foods. And, as our imports increase, so do the number of Class I recalls. These numbers will only continue to rise.
Because our industry relies heavily on international trade partners for food products, it is essential to think and act globally to address food safety concerns. From Chile to Chicago, from Indiana to India, and from California to Canada, food safety must be the priority of all growers, processors, packers, distributors, and food service establishments. Fortunately, efforts are underway to get us where we need to be.
From Chile to Chicago, from Indiana to India, and from California to Canada, food safety must be the priority of all growers, processors, packers, distributors, and food service establishments.
The Food Safety Modernization Act requires the development of regulations to assure the safety and quality of foods entering the United States. This is an important step. All food industry sectors should take an active role in developing these regulations, with a special focus on harmonizing domestic and foreign regulations to create an effective set of global standards and controls. Developing a set of food safety standards that would comply with the standards of the U.S. as well as other developed nations would improve the safety of imported food and support world trade.
As Americans, we tend to believe that the United States’ food supply is safer than that of other countries. While we might have one of the safest food supplies in the world, administration of our safety checks and balances is decentralized. In the United States, more than 15 federal agencies, along with their counterparts at the state level, enforce food safety laws. Efforts have been made to improve coordination among these groups, but there are still challenges to be overcome.
U.S. Foodservice and other leading companies in the United States have joined food companies worldwide in the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and GLOBALGAP (see sidebar, “GLOBALGAP and GFSI Defined”). Together, we are using internationally recognized accreditation and certification processes to certify food suppliers around the world in the latest food safety standards.
The goal of these organizations is to make the most up-to-date food safety standards and protection methods as global as our food supply. The approach is to create a dynamic system that can proactively set and validate the safety of food from the moment it is caught or farmed through processing, packaging, and distribution until it is prepared and consumed. Standards are met from boat to throat, or from farm to fork, regardless of where the food was caught, grown, or processed.
These strategies supplement but don’t replace the efforts of individual countries and government agencies in charge of food safety. The model, based on sound scientific information, takes advantage of the processes already established and administered by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and is accredited in the United States by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
If it is recognized by the regulatory agencies worldwide, this movement would help these organizations maximize their resources and sharpen their focus, allowing time and energy to be spent on developing risk-minimizing strategies that can target the areas and products that need more attention. All of this would benefit the end consumer.
Simply put, like supplemental insurance policies, GLOBALGAP and GFSI seek to fill the gaps in coverage and allow regulatory agencies to focus in high-risk practices.
This approach is succeeding. In July 2009, the number of countries with GLOBALGAP-certified producers passed the 100 mark, with more than 100,000 producers participating. But, while we’ve made great progress, we have much more to do.
There are difficult issues to overcome. Among them are language barriers, cultural differences, ineffective tracking and recall systems, and inconsistent regulatory standards.
Bananas, for example, are grown in tropical areas and imported by countries in temperate regions. The countries importing the bananas likely have little to no experience with the pesticides used in banana growing. Without safety standards, the bananas could be dangerous but accepted, or, conversely, harmless but rejected.
Simply put, like supplemental insurance policies, GLOBALGAP and GFSI seek to fill the gaps in coverage and allow regulatory agencies to focus on the high-risk practices.
GLOBALGAP and GFSI initiatives are designed to ensure that all foreign producers, exporters, and importers are held accountable for compliance with the same food safety standards as producers and distributors in the United States. Consistent with international trade rules and longstanding U.S. practices, the initiatives rely on a transparent process, are based on available scientific and technical information, and do not promote domestic products over imported products.
Above all, we need to guarantee that a global food safety mechanism does not add so much to the cost of food that individual producers can no longer deliver their products or that consumers like you and I can no longer afford to buy the foods we enjoy.
These are solvable problems. We simply have to remain focused on the goal and summon up the will and the sense of urgency needed to solve them.
In the 1960s, we witnessed the first step toward global food safety standards with the creation of the Codex Alimentarius, or Food Code, by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization (see sidebar, “The Mission of the Codex Alimentarus Commission”). To further the goal of harmonization, the Codex Alimentarius stands ready with science-based standards that represent a consensus of food and trade experts worldwide. International trade negotiators are using these standards more often for settling disputes.
There are more examples of progress and success. A decade or so ago, we saw swift, efficient international cooperation on food safety in response to the threat of “mad cow disease.” Just last year, we saw it again during a massive recall of peanut products. The challenge now is to shift from reacting to threats as they arise to anticipating and preventing them. Food safety standards and practices on an international scale must become a routine part of how producers and processors do business at each step of the food chain.
Share Successes to Eradicate Failure
Few things are as basic or critical to a healthy life as food supply safety. What’s more, the more than 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States each year are preventable. The nation’s food safety experts must be proactive in establishing these international standards. Share your case studies with the organizations leading critical food safety reform. Teach your best practices to your customers and colleagues. Study new food safety techniques. Don’t let international food safety get lost in translation.
Hernandez is senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance for U.S. Foodservice. Reach him at Jorge.firstname.lastname@example.org or (847) 232-5959.