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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Do Food Safety Standards Really Save Lives?

As I reflect on the 2023 World Food Safety Day theme, Food Standards Save Lives, I’m not sure I fully agree. Of course, the proper implementation and execution of risk and science based food safety practices saves lives, and in theory these should be the basis of food safety standards.


But many of the standards are a list of “to-dos” (and some of the visuals I've seen accompanying this years theme shows boxes being checked. If only food safety was that easy…). Alone, standards do not guarantee safe food. First, are the standards correct? Are they specific enough to account for the nuances of different products, different production regions, and the availability of different resources (financial, technological, talent, etc.)? Are they updated as our scientific understanding increases? Are they clear and unambiguous, while being flexible enough to accommodate varying circumstances? (this is a fine, if not impossible line to walk).


My greater concern with the assertion that standards save lives is the assumption that, even if the standards are suitable, they are not guaranteed to be followed. And if you read the materials developed to support World Food Safety Day, this is acknowledged. The guide states “the people involved in making your food … followed established food safety practices, which are transparently available in the form of standards.” (bold added). Perhaps standards lay out requirements or expectations in a way that simplify compliance, and make it easy to ascertain if a standard has or has not been followed. There are at least two issues with this. One is oversight: how do you verify that a standard has been appropriately followed? Todays system of regulatory inspections and private audits ostensibly aims to do this. Another issue is that perpetuating a “check the box” approach, whether to build a food safety program or to verify that standards are being followed, may ultimately backfire if an unanticipated event occurs that falls outside the checklist and is therefore overlooked. Could an overreliance on standards diminish the need for critical thinking skills?


There are a few types of standards that more directly help consumers identify foods that may not be safe for them: ingredient statements being the main example. As the parent of a child with a food allergy, I rely on the label to determine if my daughter can eat a certain food, and appreciate the standardized format and language/ communication of this information. Labels are not always in perfect compliance with US requirements, but the vast majority of the time the standard is effective and helpful.


Ultimately, safe food comes down to people: people who have the requisite knowledge, training, and motivation to grow, process, handle and serve food. As I was finishing up this post, I saw the opinion of The Acheson Group (my former employer): “While such standards provide a strong basis for food safety, they are just that – the basics.” I couldn’t agree more. Increasingly, providing safe food will require an approach and mindset that is adaptive to changing pressures. Standards may provide a good foundation, but dedicated food safety professionals should aim higher.

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