IICA’s Role in Improving Global Food Safety
By Robert G. Ahern, Ph.D.
The availability of safe food is fundamental to ensuring human health and productivity, national economic well-being and poverty reduction. The 2010 World Health Organization (WHO) Global Burden of Foodborne Disease report estimated that 600 million people fall ill each year after consuming contaminated food. Of these, an estimated 420,000 people will die. Foodborne illnesses result from the ingestion of contaminated foods and include a broad group of illnesses caused by pathogens, chemicals and parasites that contaminate food during production, processing and distribution. International trade, migration and travel can increase the spread of dangerous pathogens and contaminants in food, making food safety a truly global issue.
The Americas are one of the world’s leading food producing and exporting regions. Covering one-quarter of Earth’s land area and home to over 1 billion people, the hemisphere has enormous natural wealth, a diverse and productive agricultural industry and a robust family farming sector. Despite these advantages, or perhaps due in part to them, food safety is of central importance to all countries in the region, regardless of their level of development. Beyond threats associated with any specific product or contaminant, the most pressing challenge is to establish, promote and support a food safety culture, one in which all consumers both expect and have access to healthy food, regardless of where or by whom it is produced.
This challenge is manifest in divergent food production and food safety systems that would appear to offer different assurances for domestically consumed products versus those intended for export. Costs, prices and foreign consumer demand drive this bifurcation, which can erode a country’s food safety culture by presenting confusing, mixed messages to domestic consumers and increasing the gap between public and private sector technical capacities to ensure consumer safety. To be successful in today’s marketplace, countries must navigate this challenge with forethought, patience and skill to protect consumers while maximizing both domestic and international opportunities.
IICA and Food Safety
For 75 years, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) has promoted agricultural development and well-being in its 34 Member States. IICA has evolved into an international technical cooperation organization that responds to the demands of the agricultural sector. This sector is the engine of development in the Americas, capable of generating economic growth and prosperity for the region’s population. Unlocking the agricultural sector’s potential is crucial to achieve food security, one of humankind’s greatest challenges.
IICA provides results-based technical cooperation through close collaboration with its Member States. With its network of offices, IICA has demonstrated expertise in working with governmental and private sector counterparts, sharing its wealth of experience in areas such as technology and innovation for agriculture, agribusiness, agricultural trade, rural development, natural resource management and agricultural health and food safety (AHFS).
Within the focus area of AHFS, IICA supports a broad range of capacity-building activities that strengthen food safety culture at the country level, the regional level and across the Americas. AHFS specialists develop and implement these activities with a holistic, interconnected view of food safety, understanding that food safety services must function at the national level. Leaders must drive public and private sector innovation, and those sectors must have access to the technologies they need to keep consumers safe. Finally, fair, transparent, science-based rules must govern the international marketplace. The technical cooperation provided within IICA’s food safety portfolio addresses each of these issues, resulting in comprehensive improvement across the agricultural sector in the Americas.
Development of the PVS in Food Safety
Identification, analysis and prioritization of needs provide a solid basis for initiatives aimed at ensuring the sustainability and reliability of national food safety control systems. To this end, IICA and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) joined forces to adapt the Performance, Vision and Strategy (PVS) instrument, originally developed by IICA for national veterinary services, for use by national food safety services constituting the national food safety control system. These services use the PVS instrument to determine current levels of performance, establish priorities, facilitate strategic planning and create a shared vision with the private sector on how they should perform.
The tool measures the level of performance in four fundamental components of national food safety systems: technical capacity, human and financial capital, interaction with the private sector and safeguarding public health and market access. Each component is composed of critical competencies, attributes that are required to ensure successful function of the component. For example, the technical capacity fundamental component is the capability of the national food safety services to establish and apply sanitary measures and science-based procedures. It comprises the following critical competencies: diagnostic and food analysis capacity; early detection and emergency response capacity; inspection and registration services; surveillance; emerging issues; risk analysis; and technical innovation.
One unique aspect of IICA’s PVS is the way the process concludes. Following the assessment, key stakeholders discuss the results with national authorities. This conversation, termed the Common Vision Session, generates a shared understanding around current strengths and limitations, strategies for improvement, prioritization of future interventions and agreement on a path forward. This approach promotes transparency by involving stakeholders in assessment and planning processes and increases the likelihood that partners in all sectors will be accountable for fulfilling their respective roles in development.
Importantly, IICA applies its PVS tool only in response to a specific request, as the expectation is that the needs assessment is only the first step in a longer, much more comprehensive process of investment and improvement. Development agencies also use the tool to justify investments, and, in this way, the PVS assessment provides justification and support for targeted, high-impact investments. To date, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela and several Brazilian states have applied the IICA/PAHO food safety PVS.
Preparing Leaders and Forging Networks
Well-structured national services function only when competent professionals manage and direct them, managers who strive to be leaders both nationally and internationally. Leadership is a key element in promoting a food safety culture in the Americas, as leaders must engage, educate and assure stakeholders of the advantages of a system where many assume responsibilities and reap benefits ranging from improved competitiveness to highly developed public health systems.
IICA’s Executive Leadership in Food Safety (ELFS) Program, implemented with support from the University of Minnesota, PAHO and private sector partners, prepares leaders who, from public, private and academic posts, promote positive change in food safety. In addition to providing extensive training in key executive competencies, the ELFS Program encourages professionals to take on personal and professional challenges through the development and execution of small-scale projects. This component of the ELFS Program develops project management skills, promotes creativity and reinforces participant commitment to their country, organization or institution.
Experienced professionals mentor each ELFS participant, fostering their personal and professional development and providing support in project design and implementation. Each mentor helps expand the vision and potential of the participants and encourages them to step outside their comfort zone. The mentor also shares leadership and technical experiences and provides guidance and feedback. To date, 62 professionals from IICA’s Member States have received this specialized training and continue strengthening food safety culture in their respective countries and regions.
Promoting Science-Based Regulation
The food safety environment evolves rapidly, and even the most advanced countries struggle to address the diverse needs of their myriad stakeholders. These challenges are even more daunting in developing countries, where deficiencies in technical capacity often act as de facto barriers to trade. IICA works with a variety of partners to address these issues.
Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), FSMA is “the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years.” This landmark legislation, which became law in 2011, shifts the focus of FDA from responding to contamination to preventing it. The law also significantly increases the regulatory burden of countries and entities wishing to export food products to the United States. As a result, countries in the Americas are very concerned about current and future market access.
Since 2014, IICA has worked with FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service (USDA-FAS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development to raise awareness and build capacity to support successful implementation of FSMA by countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The goal is to ensure that current exporters to the U.S. maintain market access by complying with FSMA. While many (or the majority of) smallholders that export fresh fruit and vegetables to the U.S. probably meet conditions that would justify exemption from some FSMA regulations, the reality is that importers are disinclined to put themselves at risk by purchasing products produced under an exemption. Hence, it is critically important to promote understanding and compliance across the food production, packaging and distribution chain.
Starting with interactive webinars, IICA opened and promoted a dialogue around regulations that were in advanced stages of development. These sessions provided LAC stakeholders the opportunity to learn and ask questions in advance of implementation and paved the way for future interventions.
In-country missions started in 2015, during which public and private sector stakeholders received detailed information about the proposed regulations and had an opportunity for more detailed discussion around challenges and implications of FSMA adoption. The missions also provided an opportunity to share a tool that was jointly developed by IICA and Texas Tech University (TTU) to help establishments better understand their readiness to comply with the proposed regulations. We found high levels of preparation in current exporters, suggesting the value of certification schemes in facilitating compliance, while suppliers to the domestic market were deficient in many areas.
With the compliance date for Preventive Controls (PC) for Human Food looming, IICA engaged in the next phase of capacity building for FSMA: ensuring that LAC had sufficient human resources to train the Qualified Individuals that will be necessary under the PC rule. Working with the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA), IICA, TTU and FAS implemented Lead Instructor training programs for participants from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Granada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Santa Lucia and Trinidad. As a result, over 200 individuals from the public sector, private sector and academia are now trained Lead Instructors for the PC rule under the FSPCA curriculum. Each individual who receives this training commits to offering two free trainings, and the carry-over effects of this program are nothing short of remarkable.
Moving forward, IICA plans to expand its work around FSMA compliance in areas including the Produce Safety, Foreign Supplier Verification, Third-Party Certification and PC for Animal Food rules.
HACCP in the Caribbean
Public-private partnerships can take numerous forms; in these times of decreasing national budgets, many countries and their national services are actively exploring ways they can work with the regulated community to cost-effectively strengthen their technical capacities. In addition, some countries are exploring opportunities provided by quality certification schemes, such as those that the Global Food Safety Initiative benchmarks, to delegate (with oversight) specific tasks and responsibilities in an effort to balance expanding missions with shrinking budgets. IICA supports meaningful engagement between the public and private sectors and actively promotes mutually beneficial cooperation and collaboration.
For example, as the trade association for the food industry, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) can leverage state-of-the-art technologies and processes to develop and implement high-impact training programs. In response to a specific demand from 15 countries in the Caribbean and with funding from the European Union, IICA collaborated with the GMA Science and Education Foundation (SEF) to build capacity around Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) preventive approaches to food safety. Why focus on HACCP? Because establishments that implement HACCP strengthen quality assurance, which can facilitate inspections by food regulatory authorities and promote international trade by increasing buyer confidence—a win-win for everyone involved.
Capacity development programs are most successful when benefits persist after the initial intervention concludes. To be truly transformative, both the private and public sectors must benefit from such programs. We accomplished both sustainability and transformative impact through a two-phase approach. In Phase 1, 29 participants from 15 countries completed an HACCP train-the-trainer program. In Phase 2, 56 participants from the region completed HACCP practitioner-level trainings. With support from GMA-SEF professionals, newly trained HACCP trainers from Phase 1 delivered HACCP practitioner-level training in Phase 2, providing newly trained trainers the opportunity to apply their skills in a real-life setting and improve their competency and confidence as trainers.
New HACCP trainers delivered 85 HACCP trainings within the first 6 months following the program, leading to more than 500 additional people trained in HACCP througout the Caribbean. Further, 64 percent of new trainers received or pursued HACCP trainer certification from the International HACCP Alliance.
In addition to strengthening human resources in the Caribbean, the project increased the level of HACCP compliance and implementation within the private sector. GMA-SEF senior trainers reviewed HACCP plans developed by Phase 1 participants and provided detailed feedback. Within 6 months, all nine of the Phase 1 participants from the private sector had reviewed or were in the process of reviewing their companies’ HACCP plans. Seven of the nine had written preliminary HACCP plans, and one company passed a third-party food safety certification audit. In addition, Phase 1 participants from regulatory agencies indicated that the training helped them do their jobs better by improving their ability to conduct inspections and explain how to take corrective actions.
Development and Implementation of International Standards: Codex Alimentarius
The Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) supports the use of international standards to facilitate trade. The SPS Agreement names the joint Food and Agriculture Organization/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission as the relevant standard-setting organization for food safety, and its work is of strategic importance to developing countries. Adoption of Codex standards allows developing countries to benefit from protections afforded by science-based standards that they could not have developed otherwise, given technical and financial limitations. However, for international food safety standards to be both useful and adoptable, all potentially affected countries must participate in their development.
IICA and USDA have enjoyed a long-standing strategic alliance for the development and support of multilateral trade in LAC. In late 2009, IICA and USDA began implementation of a program to help LAC countries participate more effectively in, and make better use of, Codex Alimentarius. The program started with a simple premise: that by providing access to the standard-setting process via support to attend committee meetings, the voice of the Americas would be stronger and outcomes of the standard-setting process fairer and more useful.
What began as a program to support committee attendance has evolved into one of the largest capacity-building programs of its kind, including premeeting preparation sessions in both English and Spanish; preparatory colloquia, some of which involve different geographic regions; support for select working groups; high-level political engagement; and horizontal cooperation via a twinning program, in which two countries are paired to transfer expertise to the country in need. What started as a bilateral program now counts on, or has counted on, support from Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union and the private sector. In addition, current interventions include engagement with Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Over the past 7 years, this program has supported participation by over 250 technical professionals from across the Americas in 50 Codex Alimentarius Committee and Commission meetings. Effective participation is due, in part, to good preparation. Delegates who attend committee meetings often participate in premeeting colloquia that provide opportunities for the exchange of ideas, the identification of common positions and areas where there may be disagreement. In this way, countries in the Americas ensure that international standards align with their interests. Among those interests, the promotion of science-based regulations that ensure transparent, predictable markets and trade is paramount. The region provided key support for a number of high-profile issues, including debate related to ractopamine and risk analysis principles, and will continue to support these principles in the future.
Beyond hemispheric considerations, the program addresses needs in specific countries as well. National-level interventions primarily focus on improving the function of institutional structures, which is the foundation for good management of Codex standards. Through these interventions, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay have strengthened capacities in training, participation in international meetings and establishing national committees and technical subcommittees. The program also promotes horizontal cooperation within the Americas by supporting twinning activities to address specific capacity gaps. To date, 10 “donor” countries and 19 “recipient” countries have benefited from this unique initiative that, in addition to directly strengthening technical capacities in recipient countries, has the further benefit of improving understanding and relationships between participants and their respective governments.
A Vision for the Future
The Americas have enormous natural wealth, a productive agricultural sector and a rich culture of family farming, making it one of the world’s leading food producing and exporting regions. IICA’s work in food safety will be complete when all consumers both expect and have access to healthy food. To achieve this goal, IICA’s network of AHFS specialists will continue to develop and implement projects that strengthen national food safety services, build food safety leaders, strengthen technical capacities and ensure a fair, transparent, science-based international marketplace.
In addition to ongoing initiatives, emerging issues such as the World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement present many challenges and opportunities for countries in the Americas. Improved border controls and reduced transaction times can profoundly affect global commerce, and techniques like risk-based sampling hold much promise. However, without the meaningful engagement and involvement of all actors in the food supply chain, these developments will serve only to expand the gap between domestic and export food safety systems. The success or failure to develop a robust, global food safety culture rests on effective collaboration between the public and private sectors. As the specialized organization within the inter-American system charged with promoting agricultural development throughout LAC, IICA will continue to lead and support this effort.
Robert G. Ahern, Ph.D., leads Agricultural Health and Food Safety at IICA (www.iica.int/en/projects/agricultural-health-and-food-safety-ahfs). He can be contacted at email@example.com.