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Food Environment

Interventions that enable a physical, economic, political or socio-cultural change in how stakeholders engage with sustainable food systems.

Regulating food quality and safety

Overview

Every year, unsafe food causes 600 million cases of foodborne diseases and 420,000 deaths worldwide, and 30% of foodborne deaths occur among children under 5 years of age. 

There are a variety of possible interventions related to the regulation and monitoring of food quality and safety that could provide benefits including controlling foodborne illnesses, extending product shelf-life, enhancing traceability and reducing food loss and waste due to spoilage.

Concrete measures to implement

Promote research and development on food quality and safety by considering the following measures:

  • Incentivize through public funding the development and use of emerging technologies for food monitoring such as smart packaging, optical sensors, humidity sensors, time-temperature sensors and bio-sensors.
    • Chromogenic sensors: versatile and generally cheap method for monitoring food packaging.
    • Change of the generic “Best Before” and “Use By” dating to a “dynamic” system using smart technology which offers information about the state of every package in real time.
  • Incentivize the development of more broadly applicable food monitoring systems. Many advanced monitoring systems have been designed to specifically prevent the spoilage of high-value foods with tighter perishability windows such as meat and fish, rather than fruits and vegetables.

Adopt food safety regulations:

  • Regulate and catalogue the chemical substances involved in food production to minimize risks for human consumption (e.g. EU’s REACH programme).
  • Regulate the use of agricultural inputs that are harmful to human health, wildlife and ecosystems, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Mandate procedures for the approval, assessment and authorization of food products and other products in the food chain such as food enzymes, feed additives and plant protection products.
  • Adopt procedures for risk analysis, including risk assessment, management and communication to examine and manage the potential impact of a hazard that is introduced into the food supply including identifying methods to effectively address food safety issues and to introduce appropriate food control measures.
  • Require that food businesses to conduct food safety assessments, improve their public transparency, including related to data on food safety assessments, environmental risk assessments and the authorization of new foods.
  • Develop a national food control strategy. National food control strategies enable countries to develop an integrated, coherent, effective and dynamic food control system, and to determine priorities which ensure consumer protection and promote the country’s economic development. Such a strategy should provide better coherence in situations where there are several food control agencies involved with no existing national policy or overall coordinating mechanism. In such cases, this strategy helps prevent confusion, duplicative efforts, performance inefficiencies and resource waste. The strategy should be based on multi-sectoral inputs and focus on the need for food security, and consumer protection from unsafe adulterated or misbranded food. At the same time, it should consider national economic interests related to trade imports and exports, food industry advancements and farmers’ and producers’ interests. Strategies should use a risk-based approach to determine priorities for action. Areas for voluntary compliance and mandatory action should be clearly identified, and timeframes determined. The need for human resource development and strengthening of infrastructure such as laboratories should be also considered.

Adopt regulations for food quality: 

  • Improve food options by improving availability and affordability of healthy and sustainable food options to replace processed foods high in fats, sugars and salt . For example, zoning laws to encourage healthy food outlets and restrict the number of “fast food” outlets and other stores specializing in ultra-processed, low-nutrition foods.
  • Develop food quality labels and certification systems (e.g. EU’s schemes for indicating geographical origin and quality of products). 

Strengthen capacity of producers and consumers:

  • Promote the development, commercialization and use of processing methods/technologies that can limit development of foodborne pathogens such as drying, smoking, salting, fermenting, pickling, canning and food irradiation. These methods can preserve the nutritional, aesthetic and taste qualities of food while dramatically extending shelf life and reducing food loss.
  • Implement tighter restrictions and/or monitoring of food vendors operating under poor sanitary conditions, such as those often found in “wet markets” and other informal markets.
  • Launch initiatives to train informal value chain actors (e.g. street food vendors) on proper food handling practices.
  • Improve street food stall operating conditions (e.g. provide clean and protected structures, access to potable water and efficient waste collection/disposal systems).
  • Develop and launch public information campaigns to inform households on how to avoid food poisoning and other food safety issues (e.g. through proper handling and cooking practices). Approximately 40% of foodborne outbreaks occur in private homes, compared to 22% in public kitchens (e.g. restaurants or cafeterias).

Enabling governance measures

  • Utilize technology (e.g. cloud computing, Blockchain, GPS, Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data or artificial intelligence) for food safety monitoring and communication. 
  • Enhance collaborative efforts among academia, industrial actors, governments and beyond, to better integrate monitoring technologies into food supply chains. 
  • Implement food safety standards and surveillance networks that operate at and between local, national, regional and global levels, and harmonize any relevant regulatory frameworks across these different political jurisdictions.
  • To achieve maximum consumer protection, it is essential that safety and quality be built into food products from production through to consumption. This calls for a comprehensive and integrated farm-to-table approach in which the producer, processor, transporter, vendor and consumer all play a vital role in ensuring food safety and quality.
  • Strengthen organizational structures for national food control systems.
  • Provide sufficient funding for national food control systems.
  • Fund studies to investigate the prevalence of heavy metals in agricultural soils; use data to create databases that map soil contamination levels by area to inform land use and agricultural policy to reduce contamination through measures like soil moisture management, amendment application, addition of organic manure, selection of crop varieties with a low uptake of heavy metals and adopting agroecological practices.
A mother reading an ingredients label looking to buy Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) approved breaded fish that is also made with sustainably produced palm oil

Tools and MRV systems to monitor progress

Climate change mitigation benefits

Improving food safety reduces food waste and losses and associated emissions by reducing unsafe foods that would be discarded for health and safety reasons.

Other climate benefits

Measures to improve food quality and safety may improve air pollution due to reduced food waste in landfills.

Adaptation co-benefits

  • Food security
  • Health and well-being 
  • Increased efficiency of food systems. For example, improved monitoring capacity can enhance trust among members of a supply chain, facilitating the creation of contractual relationships, the reduction of transaction costs and reduction of market imperfections. 
  • Technologies such as smart packaging can reduce food waste/loss through improved efficiency in supply chains, while also adding to food safety/quality. In the long run, these improvements also lead to reduced costs and increased revenues for producers and vendors. Improved traceability from these technologies also reduces the probability of food safety issues and recalls.

Other sustainable development co-benefits

  • SDG 3: ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
    • Target 3.4: Reduce mortality from non-communicable diseases and promote mental health.
  • SDG 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
    • Target 9.5: Enhance research and upgrade industrial technologies.

Potential externalities and trade-offs

  • Improved food quality and/or sustainability standards can lead to higher prices for consumers.
  • Food monitoring technologies like smart packaging have struggled to penetrate the market due to low levels of marketing, consumer awareness, and consumer trust.  
  • Smart packaging that provides real-time alerts and product information could nudge consumers towards only purchasing newly displayed items, thereby leading to food waste at the retail level and revenue losses for retailers.

Measures to address potential externalities and trade-offs

  • Enhanced transparency through traceability may help to persuade consumers to pay higher prices for more sustainable products.
  • Incentivize the development and use of food monitoring systems using machine-learning and tamper-proof, decentralized blockchain technology. 
  • Advance the research and development needed to develop more advanced, scalable, versatile and marketable monitoring technologies, such as interactive packaging using nanotechnology to measure product quality quicker and more accurately. 
Tuna landing from early morning, right before sunrise, the best quality tuna comes from the fishing boat.

Implementation costs

Intervention in practice

  • In 2009, a group-based, participatory training to improve food safety among meat processors and retailers was implemented in Bodija Market, Ibadan, Nigeria. The training included a workshop for representatives of butchers’ associations, who were tasked with passing on the information to their respective networks. The workshop led to significant improvements in food safety knowledge, attitudes and practices, including in understanding the sources of contamination and methods to prevent foodborne disease. The microbiological quality of meat sold after the workshop improved significantly from the levels prior to the training. The total cost of the workshop was USD 4,414, with costs going to materials, advertising and logistical details. With an estimate of 500 butchers reached, the cost per butcher was roughly USD 9. 

References

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