Food and agriculture issues:

Food quality and safety



Food quality and safety

As food value chains become longer and more complex, food quality and safety is becoming an increasingly important issue for consumers as well as for governments.

At the end of the World War II, food value chains were still quite short even in industrialised countries. Consumers bought their food from local shops, or, in rural areas, directly from producers whom they knew and met regularly. Purchases were made from people with whom consumers could develop personal relations of trust. In rural areas, consumers could see how producers went about their work: production techniques were still mostly traditional and used only limited amounts of off-farm inputs. In France, production for home-consumption was still the norm on the 2.5 million farms.

With growing urbanisation, intensification of agriculture and the development of agroindustry and supermarkets, the distance between consumers and producers has considerably increased. Relationships have become more impersonal. A growing number of cases of food contamination and poisoning led to a growing demand for  more information about food items and assurances of their safety by consumers and their associations who turned to the authorities to ask for more regulations and control. At the international level, in the early 60s, FAO and WHO decided together to create the Codex Alimentarius Commission with a mandate to define food quality standards (e.g. acceptable levels of contamination of food by microorganisms or chemical residues, authorised food additives, production and processing norms, etc.). In 1995, with the creation of WTO, an agreement was signed on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures by all  its members, and FAO and WHO became responsible for providing technical support to non-industrial countries for implementing the international standards that would allow them to export their food and agricultural products.

In recent years, several high profile cases of food contamination by dioxin (livestock contamination in Belgium in 1999, and in Italy in 2007), mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy/BSE during the 90s), avian flu (2006) and multiple occurrences of contamination by Escherichia coli, Listeria, Salmonella and other microorganisms have made consumers increasingly sensitive to these issues. In reaction, governments have established regulations and controlling bodies to reduce risks and reassure consumers. Recently, particularly in Europe, the issue of GMOs has become an important food safety issue and rules governing their testing  for possible harmful impacts have become a subject of controversy [read]

Simultaneously but independently, private standards have also been developed for food safety as well as for other aspects such as the food production process, geographical origin or the impact of production processes on the environment and animal welfare.  These norms are often defined by individual companies, particularly large retail companies that impose them to their suppliers. They tend to be more detailed and demanding than public norms. They are especially more demanding for some of the product attributes and  aspects of the production process and may also include additional elements (e.g. social and environmental impact).

Besides food quality and safety norms stricto sensu, there exists a whole set of private norms that have also been developed and imposed by agricultural retailers and processing companies. These norms deal with the size, shape, colour and aspect of products (e.g. absence of spots or irregularities in shape). These norms are mainly applied to fruits and vegetables and oblige producers to adopt certain varieties or agricultural practices that are necessary for the easy marketing of their produce to big agribusinesses. They can be a source of huge wastage of food [read more on food losses and wastage]

These private norms are also use to highlight differences in the quality of the products supplied by companies who impose and use them often for advertising purposes.

From the point of view of producers, particularly small producers, the imposition of all these norms creates obstacles to the marketing of their products. To satisfy all the conditions imposed, small producers often have to change the genetic material of the plants they use and almost always have to adopt a new production technology. Constraints to the adaptation of small producers to these norms include access to information and knowledge, capacity to purchase appropriate seeds, inputs and instruments required to apply the required technologies, access to finance and the considerable wastage that occurs when the products, once grown, do not meet the defined standards. On the other hand, large companies are often reluctant to take necessary measures to control and certify the products of a large number of small producers, as it can be very costly for the small amount produced (the cost of adoption and maintenance of the GlobalGAP norm for Kenyan exports to some European supermarkets was found in some field surveys conducted in 2005 to range between £100 and £2800 per farmer! - between €125 and €3500). All these complications often lead to the exclusion of the poorest farmers from being able to sell their produce, because of the cost involved, particularly in the case of export products for which norms are applied most rigourously. A large fall in the extent to which small-scale farmers produce vegetables for export has been observed following the imposition of new norms by purchasing companies (e.g. in Kenya there was a fall of 50% in small-scale farmers’ market participation when the GlobalGAP norm was applied).

It appears that, while the imposition of norms can help to protect consumers, it can also create insuperable difficulties for the poorest agricultural producers, exactly those who are most prone to suffer from hunger. It is therefore essential to avoid that these norms discriminate against poor producers and to provide them with all the support required, either from the government or from private companies, to enable them to produce and sell products that satisfy market acceptability criteria.

Besides, in order to reduce substantial volumes of food wastage resulting from products being discarded because of small irregularities or blemishes, retailers should deliberately lower their standards while educating their customers on the environmental benefits of eating fruits and vegetables that are not exactly uniform is shape or in appearance.

Materne Maetz

(Novembre 2012)


To know more on this issue:

- Henson and Humphrey, The Impacts of Private Food Safety Standards on the Food Chain and on Public Standard-Setting Processes, FAO/WHO 2009

  1. -Food safety and quality on the FAO Website

  1. -Valentin Thurn’s documentary, Taste the Waste, 2011

- On Food, environment and health, 2014


Last update:    January 2015

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