Keep your groceries safe

Of all environmental and health issues, food safety requires the most urgent attention from authorities when regulations are found to have been violated. China has recently experienced several food safety scandals, resulting in huge financial and reputational losses for the country and its food export sector. The climax came in July 2007, when it was revealed that former head of the State Food and Drug Administration Zheng Xiaoyu had accepted bribes in exchange for issuing state food safety licenses. He was then executed in accordance with China’s strict official stance on corruption. There had previously been several scandals in the food sector. Jinhua Ham was found to have been treated with a toxic pesticide before being sold (2003); the manufacture of counterfeit baby formula that resulted in the deaths of around 80 babies in 2004; hundreds of cases of severe malnutrition; and most recently in 2008, contaminated baby food from the Sanlu group led to an outbreak of kidney disease with numerous fatalities.

The fact that China’s State Food and Drug Administration (established in 2003 to take control of food safety issues) itself has been the target of investigations into corruption has prompted a revival in the adoption of third-party verified food safety standards in China the country. Foreign importers from China do not trust Chinese national standards and require exporters to comply with international standards such as ISO 22000, which are audited by global certification bodies. Similar incidents occurred in Japan, notably at the dairy company Snow Brand, which falsified food safety records after a 2002 scandal involving contaminated dairy products.

Most nations have a government agency that regulates these issues from production to sale to consumers. They advise on national legislation and provide food safety requirements for domestic and imported goods. These include the Food Standards Authority in the UK, the US Food and Drug Administration and the State Food and Drug Administration of China. At the EU level, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) carries out food safety risk assessments in cooperation with national governments and provides independent advice and communication on current and emerging risks.

The HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) guidelines published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are a fundamental part of the important food safety standard ISO 22000, which is developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO). There are seven HACCP principles that must be followed. These require food manufacturers to conduct pre-production hazard analysis to identify and address biological, chemical or physical issues that make food unsafe for human consumption; set up good safety monitoring systems; and implement comprehensive documentation procedures. Use of HACCP principles and procedures is mandatory in the US for food products, including meat, juice and seafood, and they are generally used elsewhere as the basis for third-party food safety certification.

As the examples from China show, food safety certification is crucial for food retail and international trade. Without them, producers and suppliers cannot sell their goods. The manner in which certification is obtained carries significant business and reputational risk and it is advisable to be certified to recognized standards provided by reputable third party certification bodies.

ISO 22000 was introduced in 2005 and is already one of the most recognized international food safety standards. It provides food safety management systems for all organizations, regardless of size, involved in all aspects of the food chain. To meet the standard, an organization must demonstrate its ability to effectively control food safety hazards to ensure food is safe at the time of human consumption. It includes the HACCP principles described above.

Before the ISO standard was the BRC (British Rail Consortium) Global Standard for Food Safety has been established and is trusted by leading global retailers to ensure effective supply chain management and regulatory compliance. The Global Standard is part of a group of product safety standards that together enable certification throughout the food supply chain and was the first standard in the world to be approved by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GSFI).

GLOBALGAP, formerly called EurepGAP, sets voluntary “Pre-Farm-Gate” standards for the certification of agricultural products and good agricultural practices. Standards are issued by accredited third-party certification bodies in over 75 countries. GLOBALGAP is a business-to-business label and therefore not directly relevant to consumers.

Other leading standards that relate more to the ethical side of food production are the US-based Food Alliance certification and the SQF certification. Food Alliance certification is awarded to North American sustainable food products that cover topics such as the humane treatment of animals and the exclusion of hormones, non-therapeutic antibiotics, genetically modified crops or livestock and certain pesticides, and soil and water conservation at the farm/ranch level .

Awarded by licensed certifiers worldwide, the SQF (Safe Quality Food) certification provides independent certification that a supplier’s food safety and quality management system complies with international and national food safety regulations. SQF certifications have been awarded to thousands of companies operating in Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas.

About the author