Food Safety for China – Our Shared Responsibility: An Interview with Paul O’Brien

As highlighted at the Global Food Safety Conference in Kuala Lumpur this month, achieving food safety is a shared responsibility. FIA discusses this concept with Paul O’Brien, a seasoned Food Regulatory Analyst with in-depth experience in China. Paul shares his insights on how food safety should be a shared responsibility, especially in the context of China, given its complex regulatory systems and food supply chains.

FIA: The theme for this year’s Global Food Safety Conference was “Food Safety: A Shared Responsibility”. What does this mean in China and why is it so important?

Paul: By its own admission, China’s unprecedented rate of economic growth has by and large outpaced the development of its regulatory framework and greatly overburdened its supervisory and enforcement capacities. Despite the promulgation of increasingly stringent food legislation and regulations, China has been unable to regulate itself free from its current food safety quagmire due to the complexity of its gargantuan food supply chain. China and most of Asia are in grave need of new thinking and fresh perspective. Authorities are often limited by the inherent nature of their administrative roles and lack the creative and revolutionary impetus necessitated by performance metrics (specifically profitability) inbuilt into the private sector. NGOs and non-profit entities provide the perfect channel to align the needs of industry and consumers and present them to authorities. With global food trade increasing exponentially it is also clear that the legislative jurisdictions and physical boarders which limit national governments can be by and large circumvented by international NGO’s. Linking industry, empowering consumers and leveraging international best practice is crucial to developing a smarter global food safety framework.

FIA: What are the most significant global trends in the food sector that will need to be carefully monitored in the context of China?

Paul: Over half a billion mobile users with access to smartphone technologies and an increasing demand for safe, high quality and authentic foods makes China the perfect place for implementation of private sector traceability technologies. The importance of traceability systems for the development of Asian food safety, particularly China, cannot be understated. We are just seeing how traceability systems can be integrated with mobile technologies and when this technology is further developed and scaled up in a meaningful way it has the potential to revolutionise China’s food safety system. The future integrity of Chinese food safety will be achieved through private sector investment., Only when an open access traceability system exists where individual consumers can be assured of the authenticity of the products circulating on the market, will China’s food safety issues be truly solved. To achieve this goal, Central Testing International (CTI) is spearheading a ground breaking new food safety authentication and traceability system utilising an advanced state of the art stable isotope analysis. The basic premise of the system will operate by compiling a database of reference stable isotope signatures of imported foods that can be used to verify the authenticity of these foods. This and similar innovative upcoming systems are the future of Chinese food safety.

FIA: What is the role of global alliances like the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) and regional industry platforms like FIA , given the recent food safety challenges in China and Taiwan?

Paul: Global partnerships like GFSP are very well positioned to act as a bridge between industry and governmental authorities. Its strength lies in the diversity of the stakeholders at the table and it takes regional partners like FIA to help localise and implement global best practice. FIA’s “ear to the ground” approach allows it to predict and forecast the needs of industry and consumers and spot trends from a fresh perspective that governments and UN bodies often lack.For its part, the food industry often lacks the voice at the table to influence key government decisions in Asia particularly during key legislative processes. This is where a partnership approach is truly essential. At a domestic level this issue is important but in global terms it takes on a new level of significance. Global food trade and the increasing openness of international markets means that international interests have a bigger stake than ever in the legislative decisions made in the ASEAN and Asia region. FIA and other NGOs provide a hugely important advocacy channel often providing the necessary technical knowledge and impartiality to influence key food safety legislative decisions.

FIA: Any final thoughts?

Paul: I think The Global Food Safety Conference held in KL this month represented a real chance for constructive dialogue between industry, NGO’s and governments. Most events focus on legislative and regulatory changes but fail to offer a platform for “bigger picture” thinking. This event and the topics particularly the focus on integration of ideas and technologies from multiple sectors is particularly appealing and conducive to forward thinking. It’s reassuring to see how many stakeholders are prepared to rally behind global industry-led programmes such as the Global Food safety Initiative (GFSI).

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