By Tom Heilandt,
Secretary of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/ World Health Organization (WHO) Codex Alimentarius Commission (short Codex)
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the mentioned organizations.
I started writing this blog post before the COVID-19 crisis. Going home to Germany from Rome for a weekend has now turned into almost three months of teleworking. Struggling with a radically changed world and the growing realization that nothing will ever go back to “normal” meaning to “as it was before.” Only one topic in the news, all plans changed, and it seems a long time ago that I intended to attend the AIARD conference in Washington, D.C. in June after a Codex meeting in San Diego.
I forgot what the first version of this blog was about, now it’s about “it” and food safety and about our obligation to learn from “it”, now and in any of “its” future manifestations. We need closer global cooperation and governance more than ever before rather than leaving the scene to populists and risking a period of new nationalism.
Problems start with “its” name: Some insist giving it a denomination of geographic origin (city or country) to point fingers at a presumed culprit. Why brandmark one city or a country with a virus, aren’t we all in this together? I will use SARS-CoV-2 for the virus and COVID-19 for the disease.
SARS-CoV-2 has had an impact on all aspects of human life: political, economic, societal, and psychological. It brought racism against Asians (with people moving away from my Chinese colleague on Roman metro trains); it created new forms of crime (give me all your money or I will cough on you I got the virus); there were and will be more fraudulent mask sellers robbing the apartments of older people.
We have seen difficulties in international food trade with some countries requesting corona-free certification. Worst of all, we have seen growth in unemployment, poverty, and hunger especially in those regions and countries already in crisis.
The pandemic has also brought out the best in people supporting and publicly thanking all those who are working at the frontline of this crisis: foremost health workers and workers in the food supply chain. Different countries have adapted procedures being pragmatic and innovative to facilitate trade while making sure that food and people stay safe.
We have to work together to be innovative and minimize the bad effects and hopefully move to a better state of the world after COVID-19. For that we need:
In the UN and specifically FAO, WHO and Codex we harvest the knowledge and science and turn it into clear guidance for our members, and these days we receive many questions.
Where did “it” come from? Is it the wet markets? Should they be banned?
We do not know for sure how it happened and even for the first SARS virus at the beginning of this century, we still have doubts. It seems the SARS-CoV-2 has originated in a market that sells different species of animals – some alive – some slaughtered and prepared on-site. I will call that a “live market” as the terminology of “wet market” isn’t clear.
At home we have a responsibility and opportunity to keep food safe: we separate raw and cooked and meat and vegetables in our fridge and on cutting boards and overall observe simple good food hygiene rules (e.g. the five keys) and personal hygiene (wash, wash, wash your hands!!!) when preparing and consuming food. We minimize risks that way and would not want to increase complexity at home by letting our cats, dogs, and our canary play with our food and then eat it.
Live markets are complex operations and need to be managed appropriately with utmost hygiene and precaution to be safe for any disease. If it can be shown that these markets create the conditions for viruses jumping species, will they ultimately have to be banned, or can we find a way to avoid this? What implications would banning have on food security? Would markets go underground and become even more dangerous? There is a lot we don’t know yet.
Our solutions should be based on science and look at the overall implications. International organizations do this and will give more guidance as our knowledge grows. The websites of FAO, WHO and Codex already offer a lot of useful information. Check them out!
Is our food safe in times of COVID-19? Can food animals transmit it to humans? Can the virus survive on food surfaces and can I get infected?
As scant as the scientific knowledge about the SARS-CoV-2 still is there is a lot we can infer from knowledge about other viruses. SARS-CoV-2 cannot grow on or in food, it can remain active on surfaces, but we do not know exactly how long and whether in enough copies to cause infection. There have been no reported cases of transmission through food. The main transmission is from human to human.
Social distancing and masks will help to protect us when shopping for food or leaving home for other reasons.
As SARS-CoV-2 is not a food-borne virus we can safely enjoy our food provided we use the normal food hygiene measures and observe other relevant food safety standards both in production and at home.
Our modern food safety system has made it possible to bring safe food to more homes than ever before. Still, too many people suffer from hunger, under or over-nutrition and 600.000 lose their lives annually because of foodborne illness. This makes working cooperatively together in bodies such as Codex important to further reduce the burden of foodborne disease. We need to use each outbreak and crisis to increase our knowledge and improve.
Food safety practices, based on those recommended by Codex as a pioneer in globalizing food hygiene since 1963, will reduce the likelihood of contamination of foods with any pathogen. These measures will also help to lower the public health burden caused by other foodborne infections, which will, in turn, reduce the stress on public health systems in many countries.
During this biggest global crisis since WWII we need to do all we can to keep the food supply working and food workers healthy so that safe food can arrive in every home.
Creating another problem by losing sight of food safety is the last thing we need – food safety is everybody’s business!
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With an academic background in mathematics and professional experience in the private sector, Tom Heilandt, a German national, has been involved in international standard setting for over 20 years. He held positions in Geneva with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe before joining Codex in 2005.
He has held the post of Secretary since October 2014.
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The mission of the AIARD Blog is to highlight and share thoughts, ideas and work from people who have devoted their careers to global agricultural development and hunger alleviation.