Of all the environmental and heath issues, food safety commands the most urgent attention from authorities when regulations are found to have been broken. Recently in China, there have been several food safety scandals resulting in huge financial losses and reputation damage to the country and its food exporting sector. The climax occurred in July 2007 when it was announced that the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, accepted bribes in exchange for issuing state food product safety licenses. He was subsequently executed in accordance with China’s tough official stance on corruption. Prior to this, there had been a number of scandals involving the food sector. Jinhua Ham was found to have been treated with a poisonous pesticide before sale (2003); the production of counterfeit baby food formula which led to the death of around 80 babies hundreds of cases of severe malnutrition in 2004; and most recently in 2008, contaminated baby formula produced by the Sanlu Group led to an occurrence of kidney disease with numerous casualties.

The fact that the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (set up in 2003 to take control of food safety issues) was itself the target of investigation for corruption has led to a resurgence in the uptake of third-party audited standards for food safety in the country. Foreign importers from China do not trust Chinese national standards and are demanding exporters adhere to international standards such as ISO 22000 inspected by global certification bodies. Similar incidents have occurred in Japan, most notably with the Snow Brand dairy company, which was found to have falsified food safety records in the wake of a tainted milk products scandal in 2002.

Most nations have a government authority to manage those issues from production to sale to consumers. They advise on national legislation and deliver food safety requirements for home-produced and imported goods. These include the Food Standards Authority in the UK, the US Food and Drug Administration, as well as the State Food and Drug Administration of China. At the EU level, the Eropean Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducts risk assessments on food safety 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 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are a fundamental part of the important food safety standard being developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), ISO 22000. There are seven HACCP principles that must be followed. These dictate that food producers must conduct a pre-production hazard analysis to identify and address biological, chemical or physical issues that make food unsafe for human consumption; establish good safety monitoring systems; and implement comprehensive documentation procedures. The application of HACCP principles and procedures are mandatory in the US for food products including meat, juice and seafood, and they are generally applied elsewhere as the basis for third-party food safety certification.

As shown by the China examples, Food Safety certification is absolutely critical for food retail and international trade. Without it producers and suppliers cannot sell their goods. There is significant business and reputation risk attached to how certification is obtained and it is advisable to get certified to well-recognized standards awarded by reputable third-party certification bodies.

Launched in 2005, the ISO 22000 is already one of the best recognized international food safety standards. It provides for food safety management systems for any organization, regardless of size, involved in any aspect of the food chain. To meet the standard an organization must demonstrate its ability to effectively control food safety hazards in order to ensure that food is safe at the time of human consumption. It incorporates the HACCP principles outlined above.

Prior to the ISO standard, the BRC (British Rail Consortium) Global Standard for Food Safetywas established and is trusted by leading global retailers to deliver effective supply chain management and legal compliance. The Global Standard is part of a group of product safety standards, together enabling certification of the entire food supply chain, and was the first standard in the world to be approved by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GSFI).

Formerly called EurepGAP, GLOBALGAP sets voluntary ‘pre-farm-gate’ standards for the certification of agricultural products and Good Agricultural Practices. Standards are awarded by approved third party certification bodies in over 75 countries. GLOBALGAP is a business-to-business label and is therefore not directly relevant to consumers.

Other leading standards, more on the ethical side of food production, are the US based Food Alliance Certification and SQF Certification. Food Alliance Certification is given to North American sustainable food products that cover issues such as the humane treatment of animals and the exclusion of hormones, non-therapeutic antibiotics, GM crops or livestock and certain pesticides as well as soil and water protection at farm/ranch level.

SQF (Safe Quality Food) Certification is awarded by licensed certifiers globally and provides independent certification that a supplier’s food safety and quality management system complies with international and domestic food safety regulations. SQF certifications have been awarded to thousands of companies operating in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and North and South America.

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