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Acting together for food safety

Friday, 21 July 2017 14:36 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

International food standards play a key role in protecting human health, the environment, consumers’ interests and international trade

Imagine a world with no international standards for food. Consumers would feel less sure of the quality of what they consume. Producers would have to comply with different requirements for each market. Small exporters, with fewer available resources, would be at an even greater disadvantage. International trade would decline and prices would inevitably rise dealing a further blow to consumers, particularly the poorest who spend a greater percentage of their income on food.

Fortunately, this is not the case. Today, international food standards play a key role in protecting human health, the environment, consumers’ interests and international trade.

The joint activities of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have provided a stable, transparent and predictable framework for international trade in food by providing internationally agreed rules and standards on food quality, safety and nutritional value.

Under WTO rules, sanitary requirements for food imports must be science-based. Codex Alimentarius – run by FAO and the World Health Organization – is the primary source for food standards. WTO agreements encourage governments to harmonize their own requirements based on Codex, thus enabling the reduction of barriers to trade while recognizing legitimate health concerns.

Consumers, for example, must be certain that the fruits and vegetables they consume do not contain harmful levels of pesticides. The natural role of Governments is to assure food safety and keep such pesticides from polluting the environment. They may find it hard, however, to update their requirements rapidly enough to keep pace with the constant development of new pesticides. Global Codex standards for safe levels of pesticides in fruits and vegetables provide governments with credible international references to this end.

International standards also reduce barriers to international trade. Their very existence keeps food quality measures from being used to disguise merely protectionist interests. Science-based international standards make it difficult for countries to adopt sanitary or phytosanitary measures as an artifice to restrict imports.

Furthermore, with no standards for food, each country would have to develop its own rules, with no accepted international benchmarks for what is safe or healthy. If each country had to act along defining scientific grounds and carrying out risk studies would be burdensome and consumers would end up footing at least part of that bill.

Earlier this month, the WTO and FAO launched a joint study on global trade and food standards, as part of the two organizations’ complementary efforts in this field. The publication reveals a co-operative framework little known to the public at large, which enhances the safety and authenticity of food served every day on people’s tables around the world.

The study give concrete examples of how governments can monitor how the WTO implements those Codex-agreed global standards which can facilitate resolution of trade differences and help avoid future trade conflicts. More than 900 cases involving technical, sanitary or phytosanitary barriers have already been discussed at WTO committees, where WTO members raise issues that affect all people’s daily lives. For example, more and more countries are debating national food-labeling requirements, including information on labels regarding healthy food and its nutritional value.

In many such cases, countries manage to settle their differences through dialog, often facilitated by the existence of international standards. Significantly, of the hundreds of cases discussed, only 20 have become trade conflicts in the WTO dispute settlement system. Moreover, the sharing of information can demonstrate best practices that countries can follow to strengthen their food safety regimes without unnecessarily harming trade.

This framework’s success also depends on international food standards being defined in a transparent, inclusive and science-based fashion. FAO helps developing countries participate more actively in setting benchmarks. In specific projects, the WTO and FAO have also provided least developed countries with aid to meet sanitary requirements and be able to export.

The study we have launched also looks to the future. Opportunities and challenges that emerge with the advance of technology and scientific knowledge not only promote the adoption of new international standards, but also influence trade between countries. Technologies such as whole genome  sequencing of food, for example, can change the way we identify and respond to food-related risks. Growing concerns over issues such as obesity and unhealthy eating habits can also affect discussions on trade and food standards.

International trade and food safety are complementary and contribute to achieving the UN’s broader Sustainable Development Goals, such as ending hunger and promoting economic growth, good health and well-being. FAO and the WTO are more committed than ever to working together in this direction.

Roberto Azevêdo is director-general of the World Trade Organization and José Graziano da Silva is director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.