Do we need a global food police?

Who do you call when there is a problem with the global food supply system? Martin Hickman investigates whether we are ever likely to see a set of global food safety standards

If there were a string of audacious diamond thefts in the world’s leading capital cities, detectives would call in the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). But who do you call when there is a problem with the global food supply system? The answer is: lots of people, but no single powerful, international body.

Industry figures might well have wished for one (what would be it be called? Foodpol – or the Earth Alimentary Taskforce – EAT for short?) in recent months after the latest of a series of scandals exposing the length of some food chains – and their vulnerability to disease and fraud.

Earlier this year the deliberate passing off of horsemeat as beef forced European food suppliers and retailers to remove millions of burgers, lasagnes and ready meals from sale.

Unfortunate incidents span back decades, from mad cow disease in Britain in the 1980s to more recent cases of eggs with high dioxin levels and E.coli-infected beansprouts in Germany. Last year salmonella-tainted salmon infected 950 people in the Netherlands, and, in a pertinent demonstration of the inter-connectedness of modern food, 100 people in the United States too. In 2012, listeria from cantaloupes in Colorado in America’s South West infected 146 and killed 30 countrywide.

China has seen some of the worst scandals, ranging from melamine-adulterated milk which put 54,000 children in hospital in 2008 to this spring a ‘ratmeat as lamb’ swindle.

According to contamination data between 2003 and 2008, China, Turkey, Iran, Spain and the United States issued the most food safety alerts, though those results may have been skewed by their size and diligence.

Whichever nation is the worst offender, the 190-plus countries of the world are increasingly relying on each other to feed a sharply-growing global population. Figures from the World Trade Organization show that international trade in food rose from $1,000bn in 2009 to $1,356bn in 2011 – up by more than a third in three years.

Without a “Foodpol”, who oversees this vast trade? In practice, retailers, manufacturers, caterers and restaurateurs do much of the policing themselves through common sense and the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles; those who regularly fall below par in today’s competitive food business quickly lose their contracts.

Above this, national bodies such France’s Anses, the Australian Food Authority and US Food and Drug Administration make specialist checks for fraud and microbiological safety within their borders.

Trans-national bodies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation play a modest role too. In 1963, the UNFAO and World Health Organization harmonized a set of food standards and guidelines, the Codex Alimentarius, and the European Food Safety Authority has investigated and advised on behalf of the member states of the European Union since 2002.

Then, there is a bewildering array of overlapping and competing voluntary international standards governing everything from disease control to energy efficient transportation. Among them are those maintained by the International Organisation for Standardization, whose best-known mark is ISO 22000 for food safety.

The Global Food Safety Initiative, a non-profit making umbrella body in France, accredits eight standards schemes worldwide, including the British Retail Consortium’s Global Standard for Food Safety, which is followed by 14,000 businesses in 100 countries, CanadaGap and the Global Red Meat Standard.

Other more socially-aware schemes include Fairtrade and the new Sustainable Restaurant Association (which rates how restaurants source food, manage energy, waste and water and treat staff).

So, the world is not short of official codified global standards.

As David Fatscher, head of market development for sustainability at the British Standards Institute, points out, ISO alone has 1,000 devoted to food alone, on subjects “as diverse as agricultural machinery, logistics, transportation, taste-methods, manufacturing, labelling, packaging and storage.

“There are food standards that cover the journey ‘from farm to fork’ ”.

He says the standards “enable global businesses to embed best practice throughout their procurement processes and… allow small and medium-sized enterprises to compete in a global market place.”

Although growing though, membership of such schemes is always likely to be limited because of their voluntary nature. How would someone actually enforce standards across the entire global food chain? There is scepticism it could be done.

For a start, who would pay for it? Individual firms would probably be expected to slap a levy on products, increasing the burden on an industry which often operates on wafer-thin margins. Louis Pang, a chef and FCSI member based in Hong Kong, doubts there is a business appetite for a single global standard. “To police it you would need more man power. Education and training need time and money. Are there any companies who would willingly put in more capital?” he asks.

And – in a world populated by both street traders and multi-national conglomerates – would the enforcers of the international food rules target everyone?

For a start, says Rajat Rialch, an FCSI member based in India, there are practical problems in trying to impose international standards on developing countries. “Today India has more illiterate people then the combined population of the European Union,” he says. “Standards are just a piece of paper until you have the education to implement them.”

He continues: “In India we have water trolleys which sell water at one rupee per glass (two US cents). The moment you try to organise these standards and start putting a system in place, I am sure the foodcarts will not be able to operate and same would be the case for water trolleys which not only sell water but also employ more than 200,000 people.”

In any case, he says, unscrupulous commercial operators will always try to “overcome the logic of standards and find a way out.”

In the short term, more high-profile incidents are likely to increase the pressure for the food system to be better policed. Perhaps in the short term, multi-national businesses will pay for a stricter system to safeguard their own corporate reputations.

But for now, the arrival of EAT looks far off. And even then, no-one has yet been invented a system which eliminates human stupidity and greed.

Martin Hickman


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