Food safety and food security: food safety from production to the consumer
The topic of food safety plays a major role in everyone’s life, especially after the years of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has put the issue of health back on the consumer’s agenda.
Before the signing of the Treaties of Rome, there was no European food policy: the task of protecting the health of citizens was entrusted to the individual member states – without any coordination between countries – and aimed solely at establishing regulations on the technical aspects of food production.
It was in the 1960s, precisely with the birth of the European Community, that the subject of food safety became common ground, with the Commission beginning to consider as a priority the achievement of ever higher standards for safeguarding the health of citizens.
From this moment on, the concept of food safety is broadened by examining two different aspects, food safety, and food security: the first is linked to safety aspects understood as the hygiene and wholesomeness of a foodstuff, and the second indicates the economic-social aspects linked to the availability of food supplies. The Commission’s White Paper on Food Safety of 2000 and the EU Regulation 178 of 2002 were the cornerstones of the Food Safety System we know today.
Lately, there has also been talked of information security, where the role of the label, which tells the consumer the characteristics of the product he or she is looking at, takes on particular importance. This aspect is not exactly secondary since food has become even more important for 58% of Italians, as shown by the study by Deloitte Global State of the Consumer Tracker, the global and periodic observatory on purchasing behavior.
To understand how complementary the two concepts are and how they represent the two different meanings of food safety, we met Luigi Tozzi, lecturer of the dell’ International Master in Agribusiness Management Online at the Rome Business School, who told us:
“As far as food safety is concerned, we can undoubtedly say that in Europe we manage both small and big problems. The system works very well and has also been taken as a model by other countries, such as Australia, some nations of the United States of America and India. It is a system with primary responsibility of the producers and coordinated control by the Member States and Europe.
In addition, TRACES, an information exchange system for products entering Europe, has been in place for about a year and a half, which provides for very precise tracking from the loading of ships, to the place of storage, to sorting in the different countries. Naturally, improvements can be made, especially from the point of view of real-time notification of risks – direct or indirect – associated with a given product, as happened recently with Kinder, which was forced to withdraw some children’s snacks from the market due to salmonella contamination. The number of controls by public authorities should also increase, given the increased circulation and quantity of food and raw materials.
The regulations are there, but of course interpretations vary from country to country. In Italy we have a stricter approach to interpreting regulations: there are crisis units within the Ministry of Health that are activated immediately in the event of major dangers. In addition, there is self-monitoring by producers, who are responsible for verifying the extent of the risk. The problem, if anything, is triangulations: there is wheat from country x – which is not perfect – which enters port y – which is not thoroughly checked – which arrives in country z and is distributed throughout Europe.”
If food safety addresses the issue of food security from a qualitative aspect, food security addresses it from a quantitative aspect: that is, the right of everyone on the planet to have access to enough food to lead a dignified life.
“The reckless rise in wheat prices is not caused by the Ukrainian conflict, as most people mistakenly believe, but is the direct consequence of climate change and finance. Of climate change that caused the drought that affected Canada, which is the largest producer of durum wheat in the world; of finance for the use of futures contracts to counter the fluctuation of agricultural commodity prices.
In fact, the vast majority of commodity prices are stabilised precisely with futures. It will be necessary to intervene with rules that can protect consumers. I am not an economist to be able to point out paths that can help solve this problem.
However, I feel obliged to reiterate that it is necessary to intervene as soon as possible because it is not ethically acceptable to allow speculation on essential goods such as energy, water, and food. Today citizens are faced with a choice between paying their bills and putting enough food on the table to sustain themselves. The latest Caritas Report showed that in Italy in 2021 almost 1 in 10 citizens, 9.4% of the population, lived in absolute poverty, without taking into account the shares of ‘unheard of’ poverty and that of the ‘new poor’ caused also by the covid 19 health crisis to which the war in Ukraine has now been added. High utility bills make the already worrying situation even more critical.”
The fight against climate change, – mainly resulting from human activity that in the industrial development of the last century has failed to accompany the exploitation of the planet’s natural resources with targeted policies – has become, over the last decades, the most relevant issue of our time.
They cause incalculable damage to the environment because they alter the yield of the land, causing, for example, floods, droughts, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.
“In Italy, as in all countries, climate change is not only felt but seen. The amount of precipitation has decreased and hydrogeological risks have increased. We are witnessing the salinisation of river mouths, where salt from the sea, which goes up the watercourses, dries out the soil. Moreover, climate change means that new alien species that attack our agricultural products are arriving on the market. It happened with the arrival of the Chinese wasp, which settled in Piedmont and arrived in the Serinese-Solofrana Mountain Community and destroyed chestnut tree crops. It also happened with the Asian bug that turned out to be extremely dangerous because it is very prolific and affects all fruit trees indifferently and has caused damage, as Coldiretti pointed out, of up to 40% of the crops in the affected lands. It took years to find a solution that would restore the balance: introducing other antagonistic alien species. But these are complex biological processes and take years to rearrange the ecosystem.
Then there is the issue of fauna. One always thinks of ungulates, but not, for example, of flamingos that destroy hectares of rice with their little legs, fawns that devour fruit at their height or crows with their guano. From this point of view, we are talking about land abandonment – left to the fauna – a side effect of climate change that harms farmers, causing them serious economic losses and thus the consequent withdrawal from the agricultural sector.”
Food waste in Italy
Food security also means environmental sustainability. Food waste is a hot topic: in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations calculated that food waste accounted for about one-third of all food produced worldwide. A decade later, the situation remains worrying: according to the Food Waste Index Report 2021, 931 million tonnes of food was wasted in 2019, equivalent to about 17% of all food available to the world’s population.
This is why the fight against hunger remains among the sustainable development goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, a policy aimed at “reconciling economy, environment, and society”. Italy is among the most virtuous in the panorama of industrialized countries, even if less attention has been paid to pantry management in the post-pandemic period, with a 15% increase in waste.
“We have to understand that food can be reused. It seems an obvious thing because it is part of our daily experience, part of our grandmothers’ advice who used to invent dishes out of bread or leftover meat on the table. Now we call it policies against food waste or circular economy, in the past it was simply called home economics. Food had its value and was respected as such.
In the consumer civilisation, we have unfortunately assimilated the culture of waste: we buy the 10€ T-shirt and throw it away because it was not woven to last and this of course is a problem.
As far as food is concerned, we have to distinguish waste from loss. Food waste is anything that ends up in a landfill and is lost forever. Loss is something that is lost in the process, for example apples: not all of them end up on the pallet to be sold, like the smaller ones that nobody would buy. They are therefore not distributed along the supply chain because their disposal as unsold would represent a huge cost.
Another concept I would like to express is that food loss should be reused in the same place where it is produced. Again, we can learn from our ancestors. They saw that a tree uses the same natural substances present in the earth, which it renews by supplying its ‘loss’, i.e. the leaves, fruit, water and energy from the sun that it has stored in chemical bonds. In this way, the soil where it was located is not impoverished. If we reused our food waste elsewhere from where we produced it, we would risk impoverishing the very soil we exploited. It is not always possible for this to happen, of course, but if the ‘reuse’ of waste becomes a business, i.e. one of the many by-products I resell, this is the risk we run.
In Italy, there is the Gadda law of 2016, written to reduce waste throughout the agri-food chain and which encourages the recovery and donation of surplus products. The measure also applies to other products such as medicines and is now also taken as a model in Europe.We must trigger the virtuous circle of recycling. It is our attitude that must be more oriented towards sustainability, towards the re-use of food and non-food materials. We need to put in place a cultural revolution that sees the new generations at the forefront, as they represent the future and the real levers of change because they are capable of strongly influencing the contexts in which they live.“
A biologist who graduated from the University of Perugia in 1990, he has more than 30 years of experience in the field of quality assurance and safety in the agri-food sector, gained both in research companies (the University of Tuscia and the agri-food company EnichemAgricoltura) and in lobbying activities at national and European level. Concerning food safety expertise, he has participated as an expert in food safety and risk management working groups for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture during food crises (e.g. fipronil, mineral oil residues in organic feed, African swine fever, etc.). He has been a member of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture’s National Committee for Combating Food Waste and Surplus. In the field of food quality and safety, he is an expert in organic farming and certified quality production and serves as a technical expert in the Sectorial Committee for Agrofood Accreditation of the national accreditation body ACCREDIA. He is currently Deputy Manager of SAFE Food Advocacy Europe, the European consumer NGO specializing in Food. He teaches the Master in Agribusiness Management at the Rome Business School, where he is responsible for two courses: Agro-pharmaceutical innovation and new techniques for sustainability; Multifunctionality in agriculture, and a course on sustainable digital innovation in the agri-food sector at the LUISS University of Rome.