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Trade has a key role to play in food safety

International trade is a very important tool for tackling hunger but countries must guarantee that globally traded food is of good quality, safe and healthy, FAO’s director-general (DG), José Graziano da Silva, said at the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva (23 April to 24 April).

“Many countries depend heavily on food imports to guarantee the availability of food for their people,” Graziano da Silva said. “Unfortunately, unhealthy ultra-processed food fares better in international trade in terms of transportation and conservation than non-processed food.”   

The DG noted that trade in such products has already contributed to a substantial increase in the proportion of obese people in countries that import most of their food, such as the Pacific and Caribbean Islands.

FAO’s DG called on the international community to advance the establishment of trade rules and regulations that encourage the consumption of healthy and nutritious food.

“Food safety crosses national borders. Food produced in one country today can, within 24 hours, be on the other side of the planet and on its way to shops, restaurants and homes,” said the DG of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “There is no such thing as one food safety standard for the rich, and another for the poor. The health of all people, no matter where they live and what they eat, must be equally protected.”

“Access to safe food is crucial in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It is therefore imperative to discuss how food, health and trade policies can align to help deliver these shared goals,” said WTO DG Roberto Azevêdo. “I am pleased that we have the opportunity to place a spotlight on this issue at today’s event here at the WTO. We must consider how to take advantage of the opportunities brought by technological progress in upholding our goals of food safety and public health. We have to be prepared and that requires informed debate. This is exactly the kind of exchange that today’s event is trying to promote,” Azevêdo said.

The globalisation of obesity
Addressing the forum, Graziano da Silva said that food safety is about much more than the prevention of food poisoning and of food-borne illnesses. It must also embrace the multiple health risks associated with poor diets.

“Nowadays, there is much ultra-processed food still considered safe for consumption,” he explained. “But the fact is that the consumption of ultra-processed food is the main reason behind the alarming and growing levels of obesity in the world. Ultra-processed food has little nutritional value and contains a high content of saturated fats, refined sugar, salt and chemical additives.”

Today, more than 670 million adults are obese, FAO’s DG said. Some projections estimate that the number of obese people will very soon overtake the number of people suffering from hunger in the world, which amounted to 821 million people in 2017.  

He noted that while hunger is generally confined to specific areas, such as conflict zones and areas affected by climate change, obesity is everywhere. “We are witnessing the globalisation of obesity. For example, eight of the 20 countries in the world with the fastest rising rates of adult obesity are in Africa,” he added.

Graziano da Silva said obesity is associated with many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and some forms of cancer. It costs about US$2 trillion a year in direct healthcare and lost productivity. “This is equivalent to the impact of smoking or the impact of armed conflicts. So, for food to be recommended for human consumption, it must be safe and healthy,” he said.

Expanding international food safety standards
Graziano da Silva highlighted the role of unified food safety standards in ensuring fair trade practices. “If every government applied different food standards, trade would be more costly, and it would be much more difficult to ensure that traded food is safe,” he added.

In this context, he noted that the Codex Alimentarius, the body created by FAO and WHO to set standards to address food-safety risks, is “the single, most relevant, international point for food standards”. He urged all countries to increase their participation in the standard-setting work of the Codex and to facilitate the implementation of its standards.

Graziano da Silva concluded by saying that FAO is highly committed to working with all countries and partners to promote sustainable food systems, and to ensure that traded food is safe, healthy and nutritious.

“There is no food security without food safety and healthy diets,” he said. – Press release


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