The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) set “Food Standards Save Lives” to be the theme for World Food Safety Day 2023, taking place on June 7. The day was originally proposed by the Codex Alimentarius Committee as a way of raising food safety awareness and promoting collaboration across sectors. It aims to help countries to transform their agri-food systems so that they benefit people and the planet, and encourages policymakers and stakeholders to increase sustainable, safe food production. This year’s theme underlines that agricultural, food, trade, and industry development policies need to be based in science-based food standards to promote food safety.

Food safety standards have been developed to provide a system of assurance, that if used correctly,  ensures that food from any source is safe. Partly a response to some high-profile food scares, but also the globalisation and complexity of food supply chains,. They provide an independently validated framework of policies, processes and procedures for implementing and assessing the safety and quality of food production and distribution.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global strategy for food safety 2022-2030 opens with the following statements:

It continues to state that food safety is a critical component for sustainable development. Safer food contributes to less illness, and therefore increased productivity, less waste  and improved livelihood. Safe food, conforming to internationally recognised food safety standards, contributes to increased export opportunities, hence, increased income.

In its report “Food Safety Reforms, Learning from the Best” by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank, sets out how standards can support safer food and economic development. While the UNECE published a case study on how BRCGS Standards can support the goals set out in key SDGs.

The Facts and figures

However, one in ten people worldwide fall ill from contaminated food each year, with children under five the most affected. Despite making up only 9 percent of the population, they account for 40 percent of the foodborne disease burden. Over 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances such as heavy metals. An estimated 5 million people die around the globe because of infections with antimicrobial resistant microbes each year.

These statistics demonstrate why the UN observes World Food Safety Day as an international day, and provides the context into the selection and importance of this year’s theme. 

What are food safety standards?

Food standards are a way of ensuring safety, quality, legality and authenticity of the food produced by the manufacturers using the standards. The Standards are supported with  guidance on hygienic food handling and ensure compliance to legislation and regulations that define the maximum levels of additives, contaminants, residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs that can safely be consumed by all. They also specify how food should be measured, monitored, packaged, stored and transported to keep it safe. The adoption of standards that support areas such as health and nutrition claims, allergen labelling and free-from production allows consumers to make an informed choice.

Food standards supported by certification, which involve a third party audit to assess compliance with the standard, have emerged as a requirement to gain consumer confidence and ensure food safety across various stages in the supply chain, due to their applicability in a wide range of food products, consumers demanding reassurance in health and ethical claims, and more complex supply chains.

BRCGS’s Food Safety Standard, now in its 9th edition, has evolved to meet the needs of industry and to protect the consumer. It was the first standard to be GFSI benchmarked, as well as introduce food safety culture requirements, and define food fraud. It is used by over 33,000 sites in 130 countries, and accepted by 70% of the top 10 global retailers, 60% of the top 10 quick-service restaurants, and 50% of the top 25 manufacturers. As a result, it ensures that over $800bn of food sales is safe.

What do they cover?

Food standards are based on HACCP, good manufacturing practice and quality management system principles. They provide a detailed framework consisting of effective policies, procedures and process that if implemented correctly ensure safe food is produced consistently, that meets all relevant legislation, is fit for purpose and meets the expectation of the customer. They ae generally supported with practical guidance tools,  require regular audits which help  ensure that the organisation and management of all processes in the supply chain produce safe food, prevent contamination or untoward risks from any hazards.

Standards also focus on hygiene and the appropriate management of chemical, micro-biological and physical hazards. They cover all stages of the production, processing, distribution and placing on the market of food intended for human consumption. The underlying principle is that food companies are responsible for complying with regulations and supplying safe, edible foods. If they discover some form of contamination or hazard in foods that they have placed in the supply chain they must immediately withdraw the products and inform customers, consumers and the relevant authorities of the affected foods.

The value of standards

Until recently, there was a lack of published data to evidence the impact that standards have on food safety or additional benefits such as economic development or financial performance. However a report published by Birkbeck, University of London in 2022 explored whether BRCGS Standards have a positive impact in terms of food safety, top line growth, profitability, modernisation and operational efficiency.

The evidence confirmed that they generate extensive and positive business impacts for food businesses in terms of safety, as well as business growth, profitability, operational efficiency and innovation for businesses that have implemented the standards. They have seen operational and production improvements which can be evidenced through a 40% reduction in food recall.

BRCGS Standards also open up market opportunities, especially in export markets and with new customers, thereby improving livelihoods. They have also increased competitiveness through investment and modernisation. They generate positive “bottom line” effects for many food manufacturers. These were calculated as an average of 7.5% sales growth and 6% profitability growth.

BRCGS standards have positive impacts in relation to enabling product and process innovation, and thus growth in output and productivity. They stimulate modernisation and investment – broad innovation, which refers to product innovation and new technology as well as changes in business processes and enhanced product quality (including safety).

These positive outcomes have led some national food agencies to use standards to support regulation and desired policy outcomes. For example, the Nederlandse Voedsel-en Warenautoriteit (NVWA - The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority) analysed data over a 5 year period, which confirmed that food businesses with certification to third party food safety standards such as the BRCGS Standards are substantially less likely to experience an intervention than those without. Livsmedelsverket, The Swedish Food Agency, identified a similar trend and introduced a new risk classification model that recognises that food businesses with BRCGS Standards in place represent a lower risk and are therefore subject to less regulatory interventions and inspections. 

Research has also shown that food safety culture, which is embedded in BRCGS’s Food Safety Standard, can lead to increased efficiency. A study published in Food Control found that companies with a strong food safety culture had higher levels of employee engagement, which in turn led to increased productivity and efficiency. Food Protection Trends found that a company's food safety culture was a key predictor of the company's ability to prevent foodborne illness. Companies with a strong food safety culture had lower rates of contamination and fewer food safety incidents.

A call to action

World Food Safety Day exists to continually raise awareness of food safety to policymakers, food safety authorities, food business operators, cooks, scientists, teachers, students and consumers. As the guardian of the largest Food Safety Standard, BRCGS will continue to play an active role and answer the call to action to work with policy makers to establish robust food safety systems, and with food businesses to encourage the adoption of standards. Given the numbers of illness and death caused by contaminated food, it is imperative that we promote trusted and proven tools to save lives.

Find out more about the BRCGS Food Safety Standard