Maya Pineiro

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) World Food Summit Plan of Action specifically states that "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life". FAO works to eliminate poverty and hunger by promoting sustainable agricultural development, improving nutrition and guiding the pursuit of food security. Food safety is an essential component of improved nutrition and food security.

There are two major approaches to food safety issues - the food chain approach and fulfilling obligations resulting from World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. The food chain approach optimizes results, by sharing the responsibility for safe food with all who produce, process and trade in food from primary production to final consumption, e.g., farmers, fishermen, slaughterhouse operators, food processors, storage and transport operators, processors and distributors. Information regarding food safety is provided to the next link in the food chain. This approach to food safety distributes the responsibility for food safety beyond the food processing sector.

The FAO Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division, which hosts the Codex Secretariat, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (JECFA) and the food quality and safety capacity building work, was moved in 2006 from the Economic and Social Department to the Agriculture, Biosecurity, Nutrition and Consumer Protection Department. This move is consistently in line with the farm-to-table approach to nutrition, food safety and consumer protection along the food chain and provides new opportunities for cooperation between the units involved in the production, processing, handling, storage and distribution of food products as well as those in food safety control and standards development.

The Agreements on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement) and on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT Agreement) of the WTO include food safety issues and balance the competing demands of domestic regulatory autonomy and trade facilitation. Both agreements are compromises that permit the adoption of measures within a member country that fulfill legitimate objectives and restrict trade as little as possible. Member countries also should balance human, animal and plant health with protection from arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination resulting from different sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Countries also must abide by the provisions of the TBT Agreement that allow measures to prevent deceptive trade practices, to protect human health or safety and animal or plant life and health or the environment, and to meet national security requirements.

FAO's mandate calls for "raising levels of nutrition and standards of living ... and contributing towards an expanding world economy and ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger" (FAO Constitution). Thus, the Food Quality and Standards Service engages in a variety of capacity building activities (publications, training, technical assistance projects, policy advice) to help national governments increase safe food supplies and become more competitive in international trading markets. Within FAO, the Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division integrates both the food chain and the international agreement approaches into three major working groups: setting international food standards (Codex Alimentarius Secretariat), food safety risk assessment and provision of scientific advice (JECFA, JE-MRA and other committees and specialized meetings), and capacity building.

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