Efforts are ongoing in many regions to improve food safety; while the objective is obviously linked to public health outcomes, it is the business of food trade that really drives the funding for these activities. The reasoning is pretty simple: If efforts are made to meet the food safety requirements established based on risk (usually by developed nations) in order to enter or stay in trade markets, then the domestic population also benefits from safer foods. It is a win-win situation.
The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Food Safety Cooperation Forum (FSCF) drives one such effort. The FSCF was established in 2007 to encourage the use of international food safety standards and recognized best practices to improve public health and facilitate trade among APEC member economies. The Forum also promotes information sharing and capacity building activities to accelerate the adoption of these standards and practices. The Forum is currently co-chaired by Australia and China.
Why should we be involved in these initiatives? It is clear that it benefits the health of the U.S. population to improve the safety of food in the entire APEC region because we import it with minimal inspection (at least until FSMA rules come into effect). The U.S. imports just under $25 billion worth of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, snack foods and red meats from the region. Once again, if we help the region adopt international standards, it also benefits their domestic population. Economically, we also benefit because the trade goes both ways and the region received over 70 percent of U.S. agricultural exports with soybeans, red meat, coarse grains and wheat adding up to ~$44.5 billion in 2012. The adoption of international standards reduces the likelihood that economies will impose their own standards, such as maximum limits (MLs) for example, that are not based on risk and may be hard to achieve using recognized good practices; these may be perceive as non-tariff trade barriers or reasons for devaluating crops from certain countries.
One of the most difficult steps to perform in the establishment of standards for food safety is to assess the risk associated with particular foods for specific populations. Acute response and disease states are easier to spot and link to potential causes, but chronic conditions and responses triggered by combined risk factors are much more challenging, especially when they involve factors that are not food such as underlying diseases, genetic predisposition or environmental exposure. A very large project is active in the APEC FSCF to empower developing economies to perform risk analyses that will support their adoption of standards. Of course, it immediately comes to mind that risk assessment requires access to reliable data, an element that is non-trivial in a developing country environment. How does one measure exposure to a chemical or microbial risk when there are not enough trained analysts, not enough infrastructures or when the tests used are not fit for that purpose? THE APEC FSCF created the Partnership Training Institute Network in 2010 to stimulate a collaborative approach engaging industry, academia and governments to raise the capacity in the region.
The impact of capacity building activities is often more far-reaching than meets the eye. A better understanding of the health and economic reasons behind international standards favors their adoption in countries that are modifying existing or adopting new standards. In turns, harmonization facilitates trade, trade improves the local economy and economic stability favors better health outcomes for the population. Beyond the big picture, there are very tangible benefits. In my line of work for example, we train laboratory analysts to perform tests in order to enable them to monitor their domestic food supply, which in time enables them to perform risk assessments that enable them to participate in international standards setting discussions, but it also benefits exporters to these markets by reducing the likelihood of unreliable results that could initiate shipment refusals or economic depreciation of shipments. International capacity building in food safety is a win-win situation.