The strategic focus of enforcement is evolving but food safety remains a 'fundamental right'

By Natasha Spencer

- Last updated on GMT

Diverse consumer eating choices, global warming, food chains, the carbon footprint, water infrastructure, food fraud and Brexit are directly impacting the strategic focus of food safety enforcement agencies.

Speaking exclusively to Wayne Anderson, Director of Food Science and Standards at Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), we explore the prevailing challenges impacting food safety in Europe and the enforcement of EU-wide food safety law.

For the FSAI, there is the perceived consumer desire for authorities and public bodies that enforce the food law do so in a way that protects consumer health and is “not in any way compromised by dealings with the food industry”​. As a result, consumer awareness and education have been core focuses of food safety agency strategy.

Nutrition and Sustainability

Wayne Anderson
Wayne Anderson on the changes and challenges faced by food safety regulators

While the focus for the FSAI and all other European agencies since their inception has been “food safety, food safety, food safety”​; consumer needs, trends and manufacturing demands have all left a mark on our interpretation of what food safety is and how agencies such as the FSAI can enforce food safety laws. 

“To some extent, there are always issues to do with the safety of the food and concerns of people about what goes into their food as well,” ​Wayne Anderson, Director of Food Science and Standards at Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) relayed.

However, as “time progresses, emphasis changes”​; a possible “reflection of the successes we've had in reassuring consumers about the safety of their food”, ​he went on to say.

A recent survey conducted in November 2018​ by the FSAI, for example, revealed that people are a lot more interested in local food, raw foods and food choice.

“Over the years, with the obesity crisis we're seeing in western Europe, nutrition has become the next food safety issue,” ​added Anderson. In fact, “nutrition issues have taken over, and we’restarting to see things morph into sustainability as well.”

While the present emphasis is on nutrition and sustainability, food safety concerns remain the same: "What am I putting into my mouth and where's it coming from and what's this doing to me and the world around me?".

Food Fraud

Following pan European problems such as the horse meat scandal, numerous mechanisms such as the food fraud task force and communication surveillance have been launched to address food fraud around Europe.

Anderson conveys that all member states are focusing on the development of testing methods to discern authentic food from non-authentic food. The food industry has also “invested a huge amount of money in trying to ensure that their supply chain is authentic and that the claims they make on the food are actually what it says on the can”.

Unfortunately, Anderson anticipates that there is always going to be an element of the population who will try to “make commercial advantage from the situation” ​and so looking ahead, “food fraud is something that we need to tackle”.

Maintaining the Food Safety Message

Today, the food safety enforcement agency’s strategic focus is to make sure that amid the competition with environmental and nutrition issues, the food safety message is not lost.

Key challenges with the potential to impact food safety revolve around megatrends and concerns:

  • Climate change
  • Long food chains
  • Carbon footprint
  • Water shortages
  • Emergence of new technologies
  • Innovative food such as insects]

“It's important for people to recall that food safety is still a fundamental right, and that basically the organisations like ourselves who are spending public money trying to make sure the industry is doing the right thing are still valid functions,”​ highlighted Anderson.

The idea that the importance of food safety ‘is a given’ worries Anderson as this approach can lead to “neglect”​. To keep the food safety message alive while taking into account other pressures such as sustainability, effort should be placed on making sure that safe food is produced in sustainable ways.

“Concerns should work in cooperation rather than sustainability becoming the sole focus at the exclusion of food safety,”​ reiterated Anderson.

Commenting on these “quite exceptional” ​associated challenges, Anderson said: “Balancing environmental sustainability with maintaining a safe food supply in the quantity that's required to feed the people is going to be quite an issue in the coming ten years.”

On whether there's a sufficient amount of guidance for both consumers and food manufacturers to create a coherent understanding on food safety matters, the FSAI recognises that overall “it’s hard to say”​ as communication with consumers is “very different” ​to the communication with manufacturers.

Establishing a Food Safety Culture

Food Safety

“You can't police food safety into the several hundred thousand food businesses; there are not that number of inspectors for every business, so you have to have a food safety culture,” ​emphasised Anderson.

“We all have a vested interest in the common food safety goal”​ as this is vital for a safe food system. This extends to how manufacturers deal with food, how their competitors keep food safe and how we’re exporting so that the “reputation of the country and agriculture is not compromised”.

By adopting this food safety culture, enforcement agencies like the FSAI can then concentrate its focus on using its limited resources in those areas and organisations that do not share that interest, it confirmed.

“We are also trying to become more proactive as well as reactive in the work that we do across Europe,” ​Anderson said.

Brexit Impact: “Stretching resources”

Another unavoidable challenge is navigating Brexit while maintaining the food safety message.

Anderson comments that there are very strong laws in Europe covering food from third countries and so if the UK becomes a third country those laws will apply.

Brexit is one of “stretching resources” ​to make sure “we have the right resources to continue to enforce the food law after Brexit.”

“For us at the Food Safety Authority we have a set of laws that we have to follow, and that's what we're doing. It's one of logistics more than anything else, but in terms of the law, the law is king, and we know what we have to do,” ​confirmed Anderson.

On the matter of food safety amid Brexit, an FSA spokesperson added: “Leaving the EU doesn’t change our top priority which is to ensure that UK food remains safe and what it says it is. The FSA is working hard to ensure that the high standard of food safety and consumer protection we enjoy in this country is maintained when the UK leaves the European Union.”

“From day one we are committed to having in place a robust and effective regulatory regime which will mean business can continue as normal. For most food businesses, there will be no change in how they are regulated and how they are run,” ​the FSA spokesperson confirmed.

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