CI food expert Anna Glayzer blogs on recent meetings which underline the huge challenges of ensuring food is safe for consumers.
One of the biggest challenges facing a global membership organisation is unity in the face of staggering diversity.
This is true in relation to all of the issues that CI works on, but none more so than food.
I have been reminded of this over the past few weeks having attended two very different meetings on food safety.
The first was a meeting of the International Consumer Research and Testing food topic group, in Stockholm, in which consumer group representatives from around the world shared the results and techniques of the food testing that they had done in 2013, and spoke of their plans for 2014.
I say, “from around the world,” but attendance was limited to those groups with the resources and/or proximity to enable participation.
The countries represented were Sweden, Denmark, France, UK, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the USA.
Tests included antibiotic resistance in meat and poultry, pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables, mercury in fish and arsenic in rice.
In all of these countries, testing by consumer organisations acts as a supplement and a watchdog to government testing programmes. A strong consumer organisation is a vital part of any national food safety system.
A little over a week later I travelled to Bangkok for a Regional Workshop on Food Safety Control Measures in Developing Asian Countries.
The meeting was the culmination of a project run by CI’s Office for Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East.
Research had been conducted in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos PDR. For each country, a report on the state of the national food safety system had been prepared.
The research was carried out by CI staff with the cooperation of governments.
The meeting was an opportunity for participants to discuss the results of the research and feed into the final versions of the country reports.
We were also joined by experts from Thailand and Malaysia. The finished reports will be used as the basis for improvements to food safety.
The food safety challenges facing these countries are huge. Problems include a lack of standards and policies, uncoordinated or disjointed governance, inadequate testing facilities, lack of staff or lack of trained staff, porous borders and an absence of adequate enforcement of rules.
Some of the chemical contaminants found in food simply would not be present in European or American food.
In Bangladesh for example, formalin - a type of formaldehyde - is used so regularly to pass off old fish as fresh, that a hand held testing device has been developed.
Carbides are used to ripen bananas and mangos and pesticide residues are found at levels well above any that might be considered ‘safe.’
In all four countries food borne pathogens are rampant and kill people with a regularity that is inconceivable in Europe or the US.
I was particularly struck by a comment made by one of the participants from Myanmar. The comment was that Myanmar has been open to development agencies and overseas aid for three years but the focus is on poverty or food security.
Consumers International is the first organisation to come and talk about food safety. This comment is fairly shocking.
Food safety is the assurance that eating something will not damage your health. It is an absolutely fundamental requirement, as important as having enough food.
The right to satisfaction of basic needs and the right to safety are the first two of the ten rights on which CI is founded.
At the same time, it is immensely heartening to know that CI is working to try to protect these rights for all consumers.
In fact, the belief that everyone deserves safe, nutritious food is what keeps the consumer movement unified. We all have much to learn from each other along the way.