Two of this week’s news stories provide an interesting insight into how the regulatory environment in which the food industry must operate varies around the world. In the USA, the FDA announced that it had finalised two of the seven major rules contained in the Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) that was signed into US law back in 2011. The last four years have seen an extensive consultation process about exactly how these rules should be applied, with the outcome that the requirements of the first two have at last been confirmed. They are important because they require food businesses to identify possible food safety problems in their operations and devise measures to prevent or minimise them.
In other words, American food businesses will have to implement food safety management systems based on the HACCP principles of hazard analysis and risk-based preventative controls. Industry will now be accountable for how it identifies and prevents hazards and will shoulder responsibility for protecting consumers. According to the FDA acting Commissioner, “This announcement sets us on the path to a modern food safety system that will prevent illnesses.” And so it does, but from a European perspective it all looks like a case of ‘better late than never’. EU food law has contained similar provisions for more than ten years, and food manufacturers who had been applying HACCP since the early 1990s considered even that a bit tardy.
Then came the publication of a report for the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), which included the rather surprising finding that the EU and Switzerland are the only parts of the world that have included specific provisions for nanotechnology in their existing food regulations. Everywhere else is dependent on voluntary industry guidance and standards to protect consumers from the marketing of potentially unsafe nano-materials in food products and packaging. As the JRC report points out, this could have serious implications for global food trade as more and more nanotech applications and developments find their way into food production around the world.
To me this highlights a growing need for greater international cooperation in developing and enforcing food safety regulations. The food industry now has a global reach and consumers are used to being able to buy any food they want all through the year. Commodities, ingredients and processed foods are constantly being shipped long distances all over the world. Yet the legislation that protects us is still largely based on laws that apply only within the borders of individual nations. The EU, despite the bad press it gets for alleged over-regulation and bureaucracy, has managed to tackle this problem within its 27 member states by adopting a centralised system to develop new regulations, and it seems to have worked quite well for food safety. But more widely, only the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission to develop standards and codes of practice for food producers qualifies as a truly international effort to regulate food safety. I am not suggesting that the EU food regulation model could apply globally – a politically unworkable idea surely – but setting up more avenues for sharing expertise and data would surely pay dividends.