Misinformation about the impact the coronavirus is having on the safety of food in the Asia-Pacific region has led to confusion and concern among consumers, and it’s time to set the record straight, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced today.
The spread of COVID-19 has affected supply chains and international trade across the region. But concerns among food safety stakeholders and consumers that COVID-19 might be transmitted through food – messages largely driven by inaccurate and incomplete information – has further fueled the misunderstandings.
In response, FAO and its partners are convening a four-day Regional Food Safety Conference in Asia and the Pacific. The virtual Bangkok-based forum is re-examining many of the claims of alleged COVID-19 tainted food imports to restore confidence and good hygiene in food handling, processing and consumption.
“Across Asia and the Pacific, news on food safety issues frequently hits the headlines and reports of food contamination and foodborne diseases regularly cause alarm among the public and impact local businesses,” said Jong-Jin Kim, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative. “The concern among consumers may reflect a lack of confidence in the way food safety is enforced and practiced, and that’s why a forum such as this is important to restore confidence with respect to the coronavirus, but also to recall that, at the same time, good food hygiene is necessary to avoid contracting other quite serious foodborne diseases.”
Food safety experts from across the region are emphasizing the critical importance of pre-requisite food safety programmes such as good hygiene practices and they are underlining the need for a concerted effort to promote food safety standards and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures as well as investments in new technologies and digitalization.
Consumer trust must be earned – and that calls for investment
Improving food safety standards across the Asia-Pacific region will require greater investment in the infrastructure and technical capacity to assure that all food available in the marketplace is safe for human consumption. As just one example, in many parts of the region, cold storage and appropriate transportation is hard to find, creating a higher risk that the food can become contaminated and cause illness if not cooked thoroughly.
Legal and regulatory frameworks for food control including imports which are in consonance, if not harmonized, with those of other countries are important priorities for Members. The conduct of national food safety assessments, making improvements over time using indicators is theoretically a good approach. Ensuring multi-sectoral co-ordination mechanisms across the food chain and good corporate governance, with up-to-date regulations and enforcement, remains a key priority.
Working with media to get the story straight
The growth of information technology has had an impact on consumer confidence relating to food safety. Inaccurate news can spread quickly through social and electronic media where lack of accuracy can result in unwarranted fears leading to unnecessary actions, such as the destruction of food, based on hearsay rather than science. This is aggravated by limited expertise in the Asia-Pacific region on risk communication which, if better promoted, could help to ensure that correct information is made available at the right time to prevent misunderstandings among consumers.
Behavioral change communication, and the creation of a ‘food safety culture’, are approaches that need to be placed higher on the agenda of national food safety authorities. These require a serious commitment to build greater understanding among food business operators, supply chain actors and consumers to assure food safety measures are in place from farm to table.
In short, the forum was told we must all work together to demystify food safety for national media organizations.
Food safety means food security
It is now well-recognized that food security, food safety and nutrition go hand-in-hand, and achieving Zero Hunger within the framework of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is about more than providing adequate food for everyone, it’s also about ensuring safe and nutritious diets for all.
The Regional Food Safety Conference in Asia and the Pacific is co-hosted by FAO and the Ministry of Public Health, Royal Thai Government and welcomes all competent authorities, private sectors, civil societies, academia, students, media and the general public to this in-depth discussion on key food safety issues. These virtual sessions are spread across four days in November. Registration is free and can be found in this link.
The theme of this forum is “Regulate. Delegate. Participate.” When it comes to regaining trust in food safety, three is not a crowd.