Leveraging the Core Guiding Principles to Modernize One’s Food Safety Control System
The Food Safety Network (FSN) released an eight-part blog series on different technical topics from the Food Safety Distance Learning Module, focusing on the core guiding principles of a food control system. These principles were selected based upon the internationally accepted guidance of Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) and founded upon the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). As a follow-up to that series, we wanted to take a closer look at how one can leverage these core guiding principles to take steps toward modernization of one’s food safety control system.
As new information and science become available, countries often want to use it to improve their food safety systems. We learned in our recent eight-part blog series that strong food safety control systems should seek continuous improvement. While no regulatory system is perfect, it is vital to constantly assess and review one’s practices and process to ensure that there are no gaps in the current system that could increase the risk for illness or incident. For some countries, modernization is not only a means for protecting its consumers but also to seek out new markets and avoid losing their existing export markets. With every country at a different stage of economic development and with differing priorities related to food safety, the process for enhancing or modernizing one’s food safety system looks vastly different around the globe. Throughout the development process, many of the actions taken and decisions being made are with consideration given to the formative work of the WHO, FAO and Codex.
Recognizing differing situations relative to risk and potential for public health impact, economies will want to customize their approaches to the process, as appropriate to their national circumstances, to achieve an effective national food control system that meets their needs. The first step should be an assessment of the current level of effectiveness, the risks not yet addressed and the expectations of the stakeholders and consumers for the level of consumer protection sought.
Whether starting from the ground up or enhancing a system already present, there are several key areas of focus that should be worked through as part of the modernization process:
- Setting goals and objectives
- Conducting a risk assessment and designing a system
- Building a legal foundation
- Securing human and financial resources
- Developing enhanced infrastructure and operational capability
- Monitoring and continuous improvement
A short summary of each of these key areas of focus can be found below. While this narrative is not exhaustive, it can serve as a point of reference and initiate conversation.
Setting Goals and Objectives
When first embarking on the modernization journey, a country needs to assess the current system and identify gaps that have led to lapses in food safety, and then establish goals and objectives for a modernized system. National goals and objectives should reflect a broad consensus among stakeholders and take into account a broad range of factors and assessment of options, including: effectiveness of existing systems and gaps in consumer protection; food production and consumption patterns; risk profiles; consumer concerns; stakeholder interests; relationship to international standards; assessment of risks, benefits and effectiveness of various controls and methods of oversight; and technical and scientific information. Over time, regulatory strategy should be dynamic, and competent authorities prepared to revise goals and objectives as new information becomes available.
Conducting a Risk Assessment and Designing a System
A risk assessment consists of identifying the hazards associated with products, characterizing those hazards, assessing exposure to the hazards and risk characterization. With the results of the assessment, the government can enter the risk management phase and compare policy alternatives that take the risk assessment and other factors into consideration when selecting appropriate control options. It is recommended that a standardized approach to risk analysis be used, such as that embodied in Codex procedures. In the absence of risk analysis data, control programs should be based on technical and scientific data developed from current knowledge and practice.
An appropriate system design should consider a range of factors, such as product risk, current scientific information, industry-based controls and review findings. Flexibility should be given in the application of control measures to reflect these differing factors. The design of the system should also account for elements including, but not limited to, existing or needed regulatory and legislative framework, enforcement and compliance programs, access to laboratory capacity and capability, resources needed to meet system objectives, obligations under trade agreements including World Trade Organization (WTO) and international standards/guidance, such as Codex.
Building a Legal Foundation
The role and responsibility of the national government includes instituting and sustaining up-to-date legal requirements that establish science-based controls and surveillance practices, and enable it to establish food laws. Authorities should be provided to develop, implement, maintain and enforce the national food control system. The competent authority should engage with all stakeholders in developing new legislation and making regulatory changes.
Securing Human and Financial Resources
Governments have a responsibility to ensure that enough resources are available for development and implementation of a national food control system that will meet the system’s goals and objectives. Where quality assurance systems are used by food business operators, the national food control system should encourage their use and take them into account. Resources should prioritize public health and support infrastructure to ensure the system operates as designed.
Developing Enhanced Infrastructure and Operational Capability
Training and education programs help ensure that regulatory officials competently, fairly and consistently enforce laws and regulations. Government employees and stakeholders should also be encouraged to develop or access training and education programs relevant to their activities and responsibilities, including formal education or academic studies, as well as industry or individual training. In addition to providing training that will support stakeholders in their roles, it is also vital that a country have the infrastructure and facilities necessary to carry out the goals and objectives of their regulatory system.
Monitoring and Continuous Improvement
In a comprehensive approach, a competent authority would monitor its performance across all components of the national food control system. However, depending on the priorities and capabilities of the competent authority, it may be more practical and affordable to apply the performance monitoring framework in a phased or targeted approach. A targeted approach would apply performance monitoring to specific programs or components of the system; a phased approach is a gradual expansion of the performance monitoring framework as the country’s capacity grows. Over time, regulatory strategy should be dynamic and competent authorities prepared to revise goals and objectives as new information becomes available.
Communication is vital to the success of any national food control system in gaining valuable input for setting goals and designing the system, keeping updated with new information and building confidence in the system. Communication with the general public and with public health, animal health and other relevant authorities should be an ongoing function of a competent authority. Communication with food business operators — from initial planning through monitoring and assessment — will help build understanding of and commitment to carrying out their key responsibilities for food safety.
Modern food safety systems are powerful tools for national governments in protecting consumer health and promoting economic growth through trade. Modernizing and maintaining a strong system requires communication and collaboration among the national government and stakeholders in developing goals and objectives, and in designing and operating a system that is based on risk assessment. A strong legal foundation and sufficient human and financial resources are necessary for enforcement of food safety standards and for ongoing assessment to ensure the food safety system continues to operate as designed and to identify areas where improvement and modernization can occur.
Want to learn more about concepts within food safety? Check out our free, self-paced online Food Safety Distance Learning Module, which explores the history of the United States food safety system, the value of a modern food safety system, all of the core principles of a national food control system and concludes with a case study that allows learners to walk through a fictional country’s journey to modernize their food safety system. Visit spscourses.com today to sign up for a free account and access this module and so much more! Visit the FSN home page to learn more.