Building capacity to help Africa trade better

International push to improve food safety


International push to improve food safety

International push to improve food safety
Photo credit: UNICEF | Tremeau

International Food Safety Conference opens with call for greater global cooperation

Greater international cooperation is needed to prevent unsafe food from causing ill health and hampering progress towards sustainable development, world leaders said at today’s opening session of the First International Food Safety Conference, in Addis Ababa, organized by the African Union (AU), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

A follow-up event, the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade, which will focus on interlinkages between food safety and trade, is scheduled to be hosted by WTO in Geneva (23-24 April). The two meetings are expected to galvanize support and lead to actions in the key areas that are strategic for the future of food safety.

Food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals causes more than 600 million people to fall ill and 420 000 to die worldwide every year. Illness linked to unsafe food overloads healthcare systems and damages economies, trade and tourism. The impact of unsafe food costs low- and middle-income economies around $95 billion in lost productivity each year. Because of these threats, food safety must be a paramount goal at every stage of the food chain, from production to harvest, processing, storage, distribution, preparation and consumption, conference participants stressed.

“The partnership between the African Union and the United Nations has been longstanding and strategic,” said African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. “This food safety conference is a demonstration of this partnership. Without safe foods, it is not possible to achieve food security,” he said.

“There is no food security without food safety,” agreed FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva during his remarks. “This conference is a great opportunity for the international community to strengthen political commitments and engage in key actions. Safeguarding our food is a shared responsibility. We must all play our part. We must work together to scale up food safety in national and international political agendas,” he said.

“Food should be a source of nourishment and enjoyment, not a cause of disease or death,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “Unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, but has not received the political attention it deserves. Ensuring people have access to safe food takes sustained investment in stronger regulations, laboratories, surveillance and monitoring. In our globalized world, food safety is everyone’s issue.”

“Food safety is a central element of public health and will be crucial in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,” WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said. “Trade is an important force to lift people out of poverty… when we reconvene in Geneva in April we will consider these issues in more depth,” he added.

Around 130 countries are participating in the two-day conference, including ministers of agriculture, health, and trade. Leading scientific experts, partner agencies and representatives of consumers, food producers, civil society organizations and the private sector are also taking part.

The aim of the conference is to identify key actions that will ensure the availability of, and access to, safe food now and in the future. This will require a strengthened commitment at the highest political level to scale up food safety in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Changing food systems

Technological advances, digitalization, novel foods and processing methods provide a wealth of opportunities to simultaneously enhance food safety, and improve nutrition, livelihoods and trade. At the same time, climate change and the globalization of food production, coupled with a growing global population and increasing urbanization, pose new challenges to food safety. Food systems are becoming even more complex and interlinked, blurring lines of regulatory responsibility. Solutions to these potential problems require intersectoral and concerted international action.

Strengthened collaboration

A central theme of the conference is that food safety systems need to keep pace with the way food is produced and consumed. This requires a sustained investment and coordinated, multi-sectoral approaches for regulatory legislation, suitable laboratory capacities, and adequate disease surveillance and food monitoring programmes, all of which need to be supported by information technologies, shared information, training and education.

Speech by WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo

Food safety is a central element of public health and will be crucial in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

So this Conference is a welcome way of highlighting this vital topic.

The WTO is happy to be a part of it. In fact, we will be hosting the second part of this event at our headquarters in Geneva on 23-24 April: the FAO-WHO-WTO Forum on Food Safety and Trade. It will be an opportunity to explore the deeper interlinkages with trade issues.

Trade matters because it helps lift people out of poverty. It helps economies to grow. It helps workers to find better jobs, businesses to find new markets, and consumers to access a wider range of products, with lower prices.

The World Trade Organization underpins global trade – complemented by important regional initiatives like the African Continental Free Trade Area.

But our job isn’t just to boost trade. We must also ensure that trade works together with vital public policy and health imperatives such as food safety.

We need to maintain effective food control systems to ensure that imported food is safe.

Consumers need to be able to trust the food that they import just as they would trust the food that is supplied domestically. Importing food helps to lower prices, particularly for goods that are consumed by the poorest in society – and they need to be confident that their food is safe.

Equally, exporters must know what the food safety standards are and be able to comply with them. 

The WTO, and its range of rules and disciplines, helps us to achieve all this. The WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement is a prime example.  

Since it entered into force 24 years ago, this Agreement has made a very important contribution. It ensures that food safety requirements are based on science and that they are fit for purpose, thereby protecting public health and at the same time minimizing unnecessary trade costs and barriers. This is in everyone’s interests.

Taking full advantage of the trading system to achieve these ends requires capacity. This was recognized by the FAO, WHO and WTO, together with the OIE and the World Bank, when we came together to establish the Standards and Trade Development Facility (the STDF).

This facility provides a platform for development partners to come together to:

  • discuss capacity building needs in this area,

  • share experiences and good practice, leverage additional funding,

  • and work on coordinated and coherent solutions.

The STDF also provides funding for the development and implementation of innovative projects, benefiting both the public and private sector. The goal is to build capacity in developing countries to implement international sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and to help them gain and maintain market access.

This is important work. And it is particularly important in the context of the new opportunities and challenges that are facing food safety and trade.

When we reconvene in Geneva in April, we will consider some of these issues in more depth, so I’ll be very brief today.

And let me start with digitalization and use of new technologies. They are already having an impact on both food safety and trade.

These technologies make it easier to trace products throughout a supply chain, and traceability is key to ensuring food safety and addressing risks when they arise. Electronic certification can be more reliable and efficient than paper-based systems, therefore reducing costs and facilitating trade.

But the use of such technologies requires investment. So a key focus of the discussion must be on how to bridge the digital divide between countries at different levels of development.

In this context, the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement can play a positive role. It aims at streamlining border processes to help goods move more smoothly and more quickly. Reducing the time needed for goods to cross borders can make all the difference when your exports are perishable products, such as cut flowers or green beans from Kenya and animal products from Ethiopia. And reducing trade costs is important for everyone.

Of course, the safety of imported products also needs to be ensured, and the Agreement recognizes that cooperation among different border agencies plays a fundamental role.

Another key issue is access to information.

Surveys among traders show that information costs are very high. It can take a lot of time and resources to find out exactly what food safety and other requirements their products need to comply with, and what procedures and documentation requirements apply at the border.

Therefore, improving transparency is vital. This is a key part of our work at the WTO. We are working to make it easier for traders and for producers along the value chain to find this essential information.

In this vein, together with ITC and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the WTO has developed a tool, called ePing. It is designed to help small businesses, traders and other stakeholders stay informed about food safety and other requirements. They receive email updates whenever there is a new regulation in a market or on a product that they are interested in.

This innovation has already proved very successful – and so I think this is something that we should seek to build on in future.

Taking a broader perspective, we need to ensure that we use the latest technologies and innovations to support food safety and agriculture in general.

Farmers need to have access to the best available information and technology, and consumers increasingly expect to have access to information about their food.

Regulatory frameworks should support this. So we should look at how farmers, consumers and those engaged in food value chains can benefit from the digital revolution – in the interests of us all.

I detect a real desire to deepen the debate on these issues. We must ensure that we are fully ready to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that we see on the horizon.

So I wish you all a successful meeting and fruitful exchanges over the coming days.

And I look forward to welcoming all of you to the WTO in April to continue the conversation.

Thank you.


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