“Food safety risks cannot be entirely eliminated but must be managed along the entire food chain, from farm to table. Reducing food safety risks requires collaboration across sectors, stakeholders and national borders” Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.
It has been almost a year since the world started struggling with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries follow the recommendations and precautions provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to prevent the spread of the virus. While various businesses, schools, and other educational institutions have switched to remote work, unlike other enterprises, food production and delivery cannot be operated from the home. Consequently, during a pandemic, providing safe food to consumers as well as ensuring employee health are the biggest challenges faced by Food Business Operators (FBOs) (FAO, 2020).
THE ROLE OF FBOS IN ENSURING FOOD SAFETY IN THE EU
In broad terms, Food Business Operators are “undertaking, whether private or public, for-profit or not, carrying out any of the activities related to any stage of manufacture, processing, packaging, storage, transportation, distribution of food, imports and including food services, sale of food or food ingredients” (Dudeja, P. & Singh, A., 2017). Thus, the foremost responsibility of FBOs is to ensure compliance with food laws, in particular the safety of food (European Commission, 2020).
The European Commission defines the key obligations of FBOs as follows:
• Safety – FBOs should not place unsafe food or feed on the market;
• Responsibility – FBOs have a responsibility for the safety of the food and feed which they produce, transport, store, or sell;
• Traceability – FBOs should be able to identify and trace any supplier;
• Transparency – FBOs should immediately notify the relevant authorities if they have a reason to believe that their food or feed is unsafe;
• Emergency – FBOs are obliged to withdraw or recall food or feed in the case of an incident;
• Prevention – FBOs should identify and regularly review the critical points in their processes and ensure that appropriate measures are taken at these points;
• Co-operation – FBOs should co-operate with the competent authorities to take action and reduce or eliminate risks related to food safety.
To support these principles, the competent authorities within EU countries must ensure an adequate and effective control system. EU legislation is based on the principle that prevention is better than cure and aims to prevent outbreaks of foodborne diseases through establishing comprehensive standards relating to good hygiene, adequate labeling, own-controls, official controls, etc. The management and crisis preparedness associated with food and feed safety is intended to eliminate or minimize the economic and health effects of possible crises. FBOs have to perform their ‘own-controls’ on the production process and food to check that the applied measures are effective, and thus should demonstrate that such preventive measures are taken during food production. They are also required to implement the regulatory requirements, a code of good hygiene practice, and a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).
In response to COVID-19, the European Commission, in coordination with local EU authorities, adopted a regulation allowing member states to carry out controls, despite movement restrictions, so that food safety would not be compromised. Furthermore, the European Commission published the details within their questions and answers to COVID-19 and food safety document, covering production, food in shops, and food at home, which informs consumers and FBOs and addresses the main questions related to COVID-19 and food safety.
FOOD SAFETY IN GEORGIA DURING THE PANDEMIC
Under the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, Georgia is required to harmonize its food safety regulations and legislative basis with the EU standards and requirements. Therefore, FBOs are obliged to fulfill their legal requirements and to continue operations in an equal and competitive manner on both internal and EU markets. Through the efforts of the Georgian government, and the active participation of private stakeholders and civil society organizations, numerous regulations have been implemented to approximate a legislative basis for the EU food safety regulations and standards.
The National Food Agency (NFA), established in 2010, implements all food safety, veterinary, and plant protection endeavors. In response to the pandemic, the NFA published several restrictions and recommendations for food producers, retailers, open agrarian bazaars, as well as restaurants, and other food facilities. Among the good hygiene practices, required at all stages of food production, the most relevant is the cleaning and disinfection of food facilities and equipment at different stages of food processing. These protocols that safeguard employee health include: wearing gloves, masks, and special hygienic clothes and shoes when required; social distancing at work; personal hygiene, such as washing and disinfecting hands; and the recommendation to stay at home when employees first show symptoms of sickness.
The NFA is responsible for the official control activities that ensure FBOs comply with the required food safety standards. As expected, COVID-19 limited the control of the application of hygiene and food safety standards in food businesses as certain official activities were postponed due to the risk of infection. Between March-June 2020, when Georgia implemented restrictions on movement and even announced a lockdown in April, the number of inspections of FBOs conducted by the NFA decreased by 30% compared to the same period of 2019 (Table 1). From June, COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed and, resultingly, the number of inspections increased by 22% in July-September 2020 compared to the same period of 2019. Meanwhile, as the number of inspections increased, the number of FBOs with food safety violations also increased by 22%; notwithstanding, the cases of critical violations decreased by 39%. It appears that even though official controls are notable within a safe supply chain, the current limitations did not affect the safety of food.
Table 1. Number of inspections conducted by the National Food Agency
|Number of inspections||3256||1778||2265||2175||-30%↓||22% ↑|
|Number of FBOs with violations||2858||1537||1921||1874||-33%↓||22%↑|
|The total number of non-critical norms violated||18,984||10,424||12,528||12,456||-34%↓||19%↑|
Source: National Food Agency, Momxmarebeli.ge, 2020
Factors other than the pandemic also seem to affect the country’s food safety and FBO’s ability to comply with food safety standards. The current systemic challenges within the Georgian food quality infrastructure (e.g., limited access to certain laboratory tests and veterinary services, limited institutional capacities) have long hindered FBOs from meeting food safety standards and requirements, even prior to the pandemic. The coronavirus is, nevertheless, a timely reminder of the importance of good hygiene practices and quality infrastructure for food safety.
ENSURING FOOD SAFETY DURING COVID-19
While food safety is primarily the responsibility of FBOs, and efficient safety system relies on the commitment of all actors within the food chain, from farm to fork. Building a resilient food safety system requires the engagement of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), as well as farmers’ associations, to each bring together necessary resources, data, technology, and public-private partnerships. During the pandemic, the activities of CSOs, NGOs, and farmers’ associations should complement FBO work to increase awareness and enable solutions that improve transparency, traceability, and the safety of the food supply chain. It is particularly important to:
• Increase awareness – While the population in urban areas is better informed of COVID-19 restrictions and prevention measures, in rural areas information on the virus is limited. Therefore, CSOs, NGOs, and farmers’ associations should provide FBOs with information and guidelines regarding food safety standards; especially, for rural FBOS and family farmers, to ensure they place safe food and feed on the market;
• Conduct training – During the pandemic, CSOs, NGOs, and farmers’ associations can support FBOs by conducting online training related to food safety and hygiene (food traceability, cleaning management, procurement, and checking), which would improve the effectiveness of food safety and hygiene practices;
• Work with the media – There is a rising concern that COVID-19 might be transmitted through food, yet messages from the media are largely driven by inaccurate and incomplete evidence. Thus, CSOs, NGOs, and farmers’ associations should closely collaborate with the media to provide accurate information to consumers to prevent unwarranted fears leading to unnecessary activities such as the needless destruction of food;
• Build partnerships – Ensuring food safety during the pandemic requires the serious commitment of building a greater understanding of food safety among government authorities, food business operators, supply chain actors, and consumers. CSOs, NGOs, and farmers’ associations can facilitate the process of building partnerships among different stakeholders in adopting food safety standards to ensure that people have sufficient access to safe and nutritious food.
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This blog has been produced within CARE Caucasus “COVID19 response and adaptation project”, funded by CARE International Emergency Relief Fund. The document has been created in close cooperation with ISET and CARE Caucasus teams. However, its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CARE International.