How a Food Systems Approach Is Creating Renewed Attention for More Coherent Food Safety Policies
The recent embrace of a food systems approach is changing how food safety is viewed by policymakers. Traditionally, food safety has been seen as a distinct, technical topic, often managed by entities like the Bureau of Standards, or overseen by just a single sectoral ministry, and lacking a coordinated approach between different sectoral ministries. Although linkages between food safety and agriculture, economic development and nutrition have long been acknowledged, they have not always been integrally connected in policy. Thankfully, recent advancements in food systems thinking have led to a more comprehensive understanding of these components and their interrelations. As a result, food safety is increasingly viewed as a crucial aspect of food systems policy and planning.
The 2017 High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) report on the food system interactions framework refers to food quality and safety within food environments and emphasizes food safety as crucial for healthier diets. The framework in this report also shows that politics, programs and institutions play a significant role in shaping food safety through policies, which in turn benefit consumers. A 2020 Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food (EatSafe) publication delves deeper into the linkages between food safety and nutrition — a key dynamic of the food system that should be considered. Further conceptualizing the interactions between food safety and nutrition around supply chains and markets, this paper considers components such as infrastructure and food processing and their impacts on food safety. Essentially, food safety is closely linked across the broader food systems framework.
Motivated by the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), 126 countries have drafted food systems transformation pathway documents. Eighty-six of these include references to food quality and safety. Organizations like the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) are supporting national governments to further develop and implement these pathways. At the country level, concrete examples of how food safety policy is being strengthened in support of food systems transformation are emerging.
- In Pakistan, the government has committed to drafting a national food safety policy. While there are several food safety policies at the subnational level, no national-level policy exists. The move is a key step to bring standardization and consistency to regulations across Pakistan, ultimately leading to wider access to safe foods nationally.
- The Tanzanian government has prioritized food safety within its food systems transformation agenda. This commitment is evident in their strategic plans and bolstered by support from the Parliamentary Caucus on Food Safety. Key actions in this policy direction include establishing a legal framework to oversee food safety at both the national and subnational levels, as well as instituting food safety bylaws across the regions.
- In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is implementing a flagship program on healthy and hygienic street food across 100 cities.
Discussions around food systems transformation aren’t the sole reason countries are working on strengthened food safety policies. Across the world, COVID-19 has heightened awareness of the risks associated with unsafe food in unregulated traditional markets. Consequently, there has been a surge in discussions and efforts to establish standards and guidelines to reduce the impact of foodborne disease. Programs like Feed the Future’s EatSafe, are approaching food safety policies globally, nationally and subnationally.
- Globally, EatSafe is leading new work to improve food hygiene in traditional markets, which has gained momentum in the form of international guidelines led by Codex Alimentarius. These guidelines can represent a “North Star” for governing bodies and regions to support through high-level strategies.
- Nationally, EatSafe has supported creating an enabling policy environment that creates the potential for greater governance coordination. This is exemplified through Nigeria’s Food Safety and Quality Bill, which is awaiting its passage.
- Subnationally, food safety interventions, like EatSafe’s Association for Promotion of Food Safety and Improved Nutrition (APFSAN), bring together multisectoral stakeholders to support a collective goal for safer food and implement programming against this remit, for both food safety and nutrition.
As we work on transforming food systems, food safety policy must continue its rise to prominence, acknowledging its interconnectedness with nutrition, value chain development, climate and other food systems outcomes. By framing these elements through the food systems perspective, we can encourage participation from diverse stakeholders to amplify the focus on food safety across governments, ensuring a safer, more nutritious and more sustainable future for all.