My food, your poison

My food, your poison

On 4 November, Nestle, the world’s largest food company, announced the recall of Farinha Lactea cereal in the US. It was found that the wheat cereal had traces of pesticide that were not permitted in the US.

However, the product would have passed muster in Brazil, where it was manufactured at a Nestle unit.

On the very same day, food inspectors in the Chinese city of Tianjin announced that soy sauce and coffee shipped from Japan had shown high levels of contamination. The soy sauce contained five times as much arsenic as permitted under Chinese law and the coffee contained twice as much copper. This was widely believed to be the latest in a series of acrimonious exchanges between both countries, all pegged on food safety norms. The barbs began with the massive melamine contamination crisis that gripped China and its trade partners earlier this year.

Subodh Kant Sahai, Union minister of state for food processing, indicated this month at a CII summit that India would soon be adopting new food safety guidelines. What was most pertinent about the statement was his frustration with a lack of uniformity in global food safety standards.

Cross-border food trade is growing globally at a healthy pace. For instance, US food and drug administration statistics show the volume of American imports of Chinese foodstuffs went up 140% between 2002 and 2007. The lack of uniform global food safety norms is, however, capable of slowing this growth. When individual countries, and sometimes regions within these countries, have varying food safety requirements, exporters are forced to work through a maze of regulation.

It is both important and prudent for food importing nations to come together in unifying food safety norms. Besides lowering transaction costs for food exporters, this can also help improve the standard of food available domestically within these countries, many of which are developing countries as well.

The Global Harmonization Initiative, an international network of scientific bodies looking to suggest ways to unify food standards, says that such norms can turn safety certification and research into lucrative industries, promote better research and make food safer for all consumers.

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