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Science and Good Regulation Imperative for Sustainable Food Supply

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

An international conference exploring the challenges and opportunities facing the safety of global food supply today heard that whilst producing food sustainably is a major issue, food safety needs to be central to any debate to ensure innovations in production are matched with robust food safety risk assessments to protect public health. Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) outlined to over 300 delegates at The Science of Food Safety – What’s our Future? at the Convention Centre Dublin that as ways to produce food evolve to feed an increasing global population, scientific research is critical in enabling our regulatory controls adapt and develop so that we can protect consumers. At the conference a range of national and international experts outlined the rapid advances in food sciences that are being made that are leading to healthier and safer foods, all with the aim of building sustainable food systems to feed what is expected to be the needs of 10 billion people on the planet by 2050.

The conference brings together the key stakeholders to enable discussion on how regulators, inspectors, industry, scientists and academics can work in collaboration and partnership to utilise the latest science that is impacting on food – be it from technological advances through to the evolution of food bacteria that can be harmful to human health. The event is focusing on the microbiological and chemical safety of food, and the public health implications, as well as exploring what is required for effective regulatory control strategies in the future.

Keynote speaker, Dr Bernhard Url, Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) outlined the critical importance of trust in science in underpinning bold policies aimed at the design of more sustainable global food systems.

    “Food in Europe has never been safer. This is because science plays a crucial role in the way the food system within the European Union is set-up. A system that is worth 4 billion euros in turnover every year. A system that most importantly delivers on citizens’ health. Looking at the present and future challenges and the more and more pressing questions on how to feed a growing global population using less resources and restoring at the same time a degraded environment, I believe solutions are found again in the scientific process. And more precisely in the integration of food safety into food security, enabling ‘one-health one planet’ policies which would deliver on the fulfillment of the UN global agenda”, said Dr Url.

Dr Pamela Byrne, Chief Executive, Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) stated we are at an important milestone in the evolution of our food systems. Science is required to create more sustainable, nutritious and healthier food, but the rapid speed of change in production processes must be mirrored by robust analysis and oversight to ensure food integrity and safety. We know that over half of Irish people (51%) consider food safety important when buying food, whilst just 16% care about ethics and beliefs when buying food. And that two out of five (40%) have permanently changed their consumption behaviour after hearing about a food risk at least once in their life.

    “Like all food regulators across the EU, we face the challenge that we must expand our capacity and capabilities so that we have the right skills and research to be able to analyse these new food processes allowing us to continually protect our consumers. Now more than ever with the increasing globalisation of food and the creation of food in new ways based on scientific advancements, there is a need for increased focus on ensuring a secure, safe, nutritious and authentic food supply chain,” says Dr Byrne.

Dr John Bell, Director of the Healthy Planet Directorate, European Commission speaking at the event outlined that for a sustainable food supply that meets the United Nations sustainable development goals, food must be safe to protect public health. Current and emerging risks will surround our food supply into the future as a result of climate change, new technology and a desire to restrict carbon outputs.

    “We need a systemic approach to future-proof our food and improve its resilience and fairness, while coping with a growing demand for safe and nutritious food and increasing competition for biological resources and biomass. We also need to ensure that our food safety system is future-proofed for the upcoming changes in production and consumption and that it generates trust, that it effectively helps citizens to make informed and healthy food choices, whilst transparently addressing new concerns. Future food safety systems and regulatory frameworks will need to enable change while remaining effective and transparent on risk assessment. This can only be addressed if scientific research has sufficiently developed the evidence base to support scientific risk assessment is available. Food safety research funding both nationally and at EU level needs to reflect this new context and be better coordinated. There is funding being made available by the European Commission through H2020 and Horizon Europe and it would make sense that researchers in Ireland and elsewhere would apply to secure funding through entering together in a variety of consortia,” stated Dr Bell.

Prof. Mark Ferguson, Director General, Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Advisor to the Irish Government emphasised the need for research funding in the food safety area to protect public health and facilitate innovation by the Irish food industry.

    “There is merit in developing a mechanism that could enable researchers and the FSAI access modest research budgets to address immediate gaps in the evidence base through short term research projects that run over a number of months rather than years. This would be an agile way to complement existing partnership mechanisms which facilitate longer in-depth research collaborations. Scientific advances could revolutionise the way we produce, transport and process food, so it is essential for the industry to remain innovative and competitive and for a strong evidence base from research, both to support that innovation, and to ensure public safety and acceptance,” stated Prof. Ferguson.