Celia Martin, Director Global Regulatory Affairs, Lallemand
In the current context of globalization, food safety is more than ever on the agendas of international bodies and regulatory agencies all around the world. Areas such as food additives, allergens, contaminants, food hygiene, and food labelling are today well-regulated in most regions and have reached a high degree of harmonization across the globe. This is due to the fact that they are topics that are not linked to specific food innovation areas, but rather to basic aspects which have a priority on citizens’ health.
Food safety and consumers’ health has always been at the centre of global debates. Since the creation of the joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) expert meetings on nutrition and food additives in the 1950s and the subsequent creation of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a number of standards and guidelines on food safety have served as a basis for countries when building their food control and regulatory systems.
If we look at the evolution of the regulatory landscape in the European Union (EU) during the last 20 years, an important milestone in the Food safety approach was achieved in 2002 with the General Food Law Regulation. After a period of food-related crisis and under the impact of the mad-cow disease at the end of the nineties, the EU implemented the “farm to fork” strategy, covering the whole food supply chain. The General Food Law established the principles of risk assessment and risk management with the creation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent scientific body providing advice to the EU regulators. Ever since, the central goal of the EU has always been to ensure a high level of consumers’ protection. Different pieces of legislation have gradually developed over the last 20 years in areas which were not harmonized or simply not regulated previously: food supplements (2002), animal by-products (2009), genetically modified organisms (2003), biological contaminants, food hygiene and food contact materials (these last three in 2004), residues of pesticides and other contaminants in foods (2005 and 2006 respectively), food additives, flavourings and enzymes (2008), to name a few.
When looking back chronologically, one could interpret that those areas tackled by the EU regulators in the first instance after the EFSA creation were covering the most critical aspects regarding food safety.
Food safety and consumers’ health has always been at the centre of global debates
A second level of consumer protection covers food information. Providing consumers with correct, truthful, and non-misleading information about the food they buy is a priority for policymakers. This is achieved through nutrition and labelling legislation. The EU has also extensively regulated on that area over the last 15 years. Food supplements were unregulated prior to 2002 when the first EU Directive came in. Since then, regulatory texts on other areas followed, such as the addition of vitamins, minerals and other substances to foods (2006), nutrition and health claims (2006), food information to consumers (2011) and foods for special groups (2013), the later regulation including foods for infants, for weight control and medical purposes, all food categories that were previously regulated separately. More recently, areas like foods for gluten intolerants (2014), novel food (2015), country of origin (2018) or trans-fat (2019) have been the object of new regulations.
With a solid food safety system in place and a broad regulatory package on food labelling, food companies are not only committed to provide safe foods but also to use harmonized and clear labels that consumers understand so that they are able to make informed choices based on their preferences or health concerns regarding salt, sugar, fibre, allergens, trans-fat, nutritional information and so on. By helping the citizens to make informed decisions about the foods they get, the governments tend to go to the next level of consumer’s protection by promoting healthier choices among the general population. To achieve this goal, policymakers need to first reach an agreement on what makes a food healthy, or natural, what is a good nutritional profile, what is a health benefit provided by food etc. Those aspects are still under debate, mainly because of the different understanding by the relevant agencies in the world.
This is clearly the case in the area of health claims: although the need of a sound scientific substantiation is agreed upon by most of the regulatory agencies, the required level of proof and the wordings to be used in consumers’ products is yet to be harmonized. The lack of common understanding creates consumer confusion and places the industries working globally in an unfair situation, with the same product having one health claim allowed in the packaging in one country and being forbidden in another one.
Other areas are still awaiting regulations like the use of the word “natural” in food labelling. Most regulatory agencies have not engaged in rulemaking to establish a definition or the conditions to consider a food to be natural. Food companies can be inspired by the ISO specification2017), which only applies to B to B communications and not to the consumers or by national guidelines which may create conflict with free movement of goods and mutual recognition legislation. Another areas that would probably be regulated in the future is the one of, lab meat or cultured meat as well as the growing field of new fermented foods and drinks. Functional foods with new properties are one of the pillars of the food industry: producing products with new techniques at a cellular or molecular level, or with new processes challenge the assumptions, open debates on labelling and shows, once again, that regulations are always behind consumers’ trends and industry innovation.
Although regulations influence consumer choices and, as a consequence, the industry to produce foods that reach compliance, the reverse phenomenon is also true: consumers’ demands have a big impact on the evolution of the regulatory framework. Marketing trends driven by consumers’ concerns on environmental/climate change, sustainable practices or nutritional habits highlight the need for new regulatory frameworks. Consumers expect products contributing to their overall health, and therefore innovation is strongly needed. For this reason, regulatory systems need to constantly evolve and adapt. This could be achieved by setting global experts panels, composed of scientists, industry and regulators, which collaborate to set out an efficient framework that provide healthy and safe foods to consumers le allowing food industry to bring innovative products to the market.