Food Safety Primer

This section includes an overview of international food safety roles and responsibilities.

Food Safety Infrastructure:

Modern food production and commerce is a multifaceted and complex enterprise. Individuals wishing to provide field worker training may not be familiar with the numerous international organizations, trade agreements, national laws and regulations, and programs that have been developed for producers and processors to meet food safety requirements for products in the complex global marketplace. This primer is designed to provide an overview and additional resources for the food safety aspect of agribusiness. Those who are familiar with the Codex Alimentarius, World Trade Organization, National Food Control laws/regulations, and Good Hygienic Practices should be able to use the training manual directly. Others are encouraged to review the online resources referenced in this primer.

International Food Safety Standards:

The United Nations (UN) promotes safe food trade through an intergovernmental body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), founded in 1962 and co-sponsored by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Codex Alimentarius Commission:

As a whole, Codex Alimentarius (Codex) consists of the  Commission, Executive Committee and subsidiary bodies. The work of the Codex Alimentarius  Commission focuses on developing international food standards, implementing the scientific  recommendations of the FAO/WHO Expert Committees, developing guidelines and recommendations, and responding to emerging issues. The Codex Alimentarius Commission develops, facilitates and  coordinates international work on food standards by forming subsidiary bodies including committees, taskforces and workgroups. The standing committees include 1) General Subject Matter Committees, which develop standards that cover many commodities with a focus on food safety; 2) Commodity  Committees, which focus on developing standards of identity to aid in trade; 3) Regional Coordinating Committees, which develop regional food standards; and 4) Task Forces, which are formed to work on one issue and then disbanded.

The Commission is the decision-making body. It meets annually to provide a forum for debate and agreement on the work of the subsidiary bodies, recommendations of the Expert Bodies of WHO and FAO scientists and issues of concern to the members. At the annual meeting, all 187 Codex member states negotiate and agree upon science based standards in all areas related to food safety and quality: food hygiene; maximum limits for food additives; residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs; and  maximum limits and codes for the prevention of chemical and microbiological contamination.  

For approximately the first 30 years of its existence, the Codex standards were voluntary and  Committees worked rapidly and through consensus. More recently the work of the Codex has gained importance because of the recognition of Codex standards by the Sanitary and Phytosanitary agreement. More information on the Codex System and how it works is available online at

Modern International Trade Agreements:

A fundamental requirement for imported (as well as domestic) food products is safety. To ensure food safety and to avoid the introduction of diseases and pests through trade, countries routinely imposed trade restrictions designed to protect human and animal health (sanitary measures) and plant health (phytosanitary measures). Early modern trade agreements recognized the need for these restrictions on trade. The 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) rules covered trade restrictions to protect human, animal or plant life or health. GATT Members had the right to make these protections provided they were not an arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries, or a disguised trade restriction. However, under the GATT, as tariffs were reduced, the use of sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions to protect domestic industries became more common. These trade restrictions based on sanitary and phytosanitary concerns became viewed as non-tariff trade barriers. 

The misuse of sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions as a barrier to trade was addressed in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, and resulted in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

World Trade Organization (WTO): The WTO is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. It represents most of the world’s trading nations and most of the world’s international trade agreements. The functions of the WTO include 1) administration of WTO trade agreements; 2) providing a forum for trade negotiations; 3) handling of trade disputes; 4) monitoring national trade policies; 5) providing technical assistance and training for developing countries; and 6) cooperating with other international organizations.


The WTO implements and administers three Multilateral Trade Agreements

Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement): concerns with measures that protect human and plant health
Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement): covers technical regulations and conformity assessment procedures for all commodities,

including food

Agreement on Agriculture: deals mainly with issues of market access, domestic support, and export subsidies for agricultural products.


Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement):

The primary trade agreement dealing with the safety of food states that Members have the right to adopt SPS measures to achieve their self-determined level of health protection; however this level of protection must be 1) applied only to the extent necessary to protect life or health; 2) based on scientific principles (except emergency or provisional measures); and 3) not unjustifiably discriminate between national and foreign supply sources. In developing measures to protect health, Members must comply with the provisions of the SPS Agreement, including 1) scientific justification; 2) harmonization; 3) equivalence; 4) disease-free areas; 5) transparency; and 6) technical assistance. All of these provisions (except disease-free areas) apply to food. More information on each of these provisions is available at (Accessed November 2017)

National Food Control:

According to the Guidelines for strengthening national food control systems developed by FAO/WHO, food control is the “mandatory regulatory activity of enforcement by national or local authorities to provide consumer protection and ensure all food during production, handling, storage, processing and distribution are safe, wholesome and fit for human consumption; conform to safety and quality requirements; and are honestly and accurately labeled as prescribed by law” (document is available online at (Accessed November 2017) According to this definition, the foremost responsibility of food control is to enforce the food laws that protect the consumer against unsafe, impure and fraudulently presented food. National food laws vary among different nations, but traditionally consist of legal definitions for unsafe food, prescribe enforcement tools for removing unsafe food from the market, and outline punishments for producers and processors that market contaminated food products. Among the elements needed for a functional food control system, FAO/WHO guidelines describe food control management, inspectional services, laboratory services, and communication, education and training in addition to the laws and regulations.

Food Control Management refers to all the leadership and administrative structure needed to develop and implement the food control strategy outlined in the laws including setting standards, conducting risk analysis, issuing product recalls, taking enforcement actions.

Inspectional Service covers the on-site examination of food facilities that produce, handle, store, process and distribute food.

Laboratory Services refers to the ability to measure food for physical, chemical and microbiological contamination for monitoring and surveillance purposes.

A modern food control system must communicate with and have programs provide education programs for stakeholders.

Guidelines for strengthening national food control systems were written to encourage countries to enact relevant and enforceable food laws and regulations and it places a lot of emphasis on the importance of Food Laws and Regulations. In fact given the complexity of food production, handling, storage, processing and distribution, it unrealistic to think that national and local governments can assure the safety of the food supply without the cooperation, active participation and support of the food industry.

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Last modified: Monday, February 19, 2018, 5:18 PM