Food safety is the assurance that food will not cause harm to the consumer and covers contamination by chemical and biological agents and concerns about inherent food nature. In many countries, responsibility for food safety is divided among several agencies with overlapping authority. While this situation in some countries have ld to disjointed strategy for the protection of human health from foodborne disease, new stratege in other countries have integrated production to consumption system in one chain. Although contamination affects far more people globally (2 million children die every year because of contaminated food and water), issues around GM foods tend to attract more debate, at least in some part of the world.
Millions of people are affected by contamination. A number of factors increase the likelihood of food becoming contaminated during harvesting, preparing, transport or delivery, including:
- Globalization of the production of food, including fresh produce being traded all over the world.
- Development of new food production industries in nations with potentially fewer resources and lower standards.
- Centralized processing of human and animal foodstuffs and widespread distribution.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) addresses food safety and animal and plant standards for traded goods. The WTO does not set the standards but encourages its members to use standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (see below), or to set their own. These standards can be higher than internationally agreed ones but they must be based on scientific evidence and they must not discriminate between countries as disguised restrictions on trade, such as non-tariff barriers. Thus the agreement tries to balance health protection with trade openness.
The agreement is subject to a number of criticisms and is currently being reviewed. This is a result of decisions taken at Doha, and also of deliberations of the WTO committee with responsibility for the agreement. There are demands for greater clarification on the equivalence of each country's food safety measures. There are also concerns that poorer countries face difficulties in monitoring and implementing the agreement, because of low state capacity. Many developing countries feel that the agreement is too vague, too difficult and costly to implement.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission was established in 1962 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO to implement the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. Initially providing a basis for international standards, it is now the point of reference for standards, guidelines and codes of practice for the protection of public health and fair practice in the international food trade. Domestic food safety measures which conform to the Codex standards, guidelines or other recommendations are presumed to be consistent with the SPS Agreement.
A second area of concern for food safety is genetically modified foods, which are any foods containing products from genetically modified plants, animals or micro-organisms (GMOs). There is a great deal of debate about the safety of genetically modified foods in which the precautionary principle has become a key and contentious issue. The principle originally related to ecologically sustainable development, but uncertainty that where there is a lack of scientific certainty and a possibility of serious or irreversible damage to the environment, should be recognized. The possible impacts should then be assessed and measures put in place immediately to avoid possible damage. The key point is to act to prevent potential damage, even if there is no scientific evidence currently available that such damage would occur. The handling and testing infrastructure in developing countries are still poorly developed. In the case of GMOs, yet there is great commercial pressure to allow use and distribution based on the notion that consumers have a sovereign right to know what they are consuming.
The European Union has made the precautionary principle the basis for European environmental law; the principle also plays an increasingly important role in development of environmental health policies. Interpretations of the principle have been extremely variable. In its strongest formulations, the principle can be interpreted as calling for absolute proof of safety before allowing new technologies to be adopted. Other formulations, such as the 1992 Rio Declaration, allow for cost-benefit analysis and discretionary judgment. However, clear guidelines are often lacking regarding the weight of evidence required to trigger operation of the principle and for deciding which of the large range of precautionary measures should be applied in a given circumstance.