Food standards trigger trade benefits

Developing international food standards for trade is essential if countries are to reap the benefits of booming global trade and prepare for imminent technological changes.

Developing countries, in particular, should invest in the capacity and skills to achieve effective engagement in institutions and multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organization and Codex Alimentarius, the world’s primary international food standards setting body.

The Trade and Food Standards publication offers a concise explanation of how international food standards are set and applied.

It advocates for deeper involvement by developing countries in both the harmonized food standard setting processes in Codex Alimentarius and the WTO’s sanitary and phytosanitary and technical barriers to trade committees.

“When food standards and international trade work hand-in-hand, they help to ensure food safety, as well as improved nutrition across the globe. This can help to promote growth and development and to deliver on many of the new sustainable development goals,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo.

More effective engagement also has the potential to make the $1.7 trillion international market in agriculture products more inclusive, allowing small-scale food producers and processors to participate in large-scale value chains.

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To achieve this, governments must devote attention and muster national consensus on their food policy priorities.

Such an approach is increasingly imperative in a time of growing consumer concerns about microbes, pesticides, food additives and nutrition and of greatly increased technological abilities to control the quality, safety and origins of food products.

“Food safety and food standards are crucial to unlock the potential of an important tool to fight hunger, which is trade,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

“Public and private sectors, operators from all parts of the food value chain, civil society organizations, academic and research organizations — all have essential roles in developing sound and credible systems of food safety management.”

While emerging economies have recently begun to increase their participation in key Codex and WTO committees, levels of participation by many least-developed country members remain low.

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One key message of the book is that countries will get most value from participating in such work if they bring together government officials and agriculture, health, industry and trade experts, as well as consumer and producer groups, to identify national food safety and quality priorities and identify possible means to address them.

The publication also illustrates some of the drivers of change in the area of food regulation — digitalization, new production and processing technologies and e-commerce, as well as labelling trends, new trade deals and changing dietary and consumer preferences — that will all have an increasingly profound impact on the food trade and food safety landscape.

Traceability of food products is increasingly obligatory to allow for the rapid response to outbreaks of food-borne disease.

Methods to measure radiation, pesticides and other chemical contaminants in food are increasingly sensitive and underline the growing importance for developing countries’ capacities to assess associated risks and to appropriately manage and communicate them.

Such developments pose formidable challenges to many developing countries, where food control, inspection and certification systems are often in their infancy and supply chains are often fragmented and not well developed.

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The WTO, FAO and others have created the Standards and Trade Development Facility to disseminate best practices and support projects to help developing countries enhance market access by complying with international standards.