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food and sustainability

Sustainable food must be safe food - finding the balance

Later this year, if viruses allow, food safety professionals will gather in Barcelona for the GFSI conference. It will be a welcome return to meeting with our food safety peers in-person.

As ever, there will be much to share and much to learn, but we need only look at the opening plenary session to see what will be one of the major themes of the event – a conversation exploring the links between food safety , sustainability and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

With consumers, investors, NGOs, regulators and governments all agitating for more progress, delivered faster, it’s a conversation that’s urgently needed. But I believe it must also be handled with some care. Here’s why.

One of the great achievements of the GFSI - and a great deal of hard work by the food sector – has been to make food safety a given in the minds of the public. Mistakes happen, of course, but they are rare and the fact remains that 90% of consumers are completely unconcerned about the safety of their food. That’s an incredible vote of confidence.

When it comes to the sustainability of our food, however, it’s a different story. Consumer expectations are rising – and in many instances are not being met. This dynamic raises two critical points for food safety professionals that I hope will be part of the debate in Barcelona.

Firstly, in pursuit of sustainability goals, there’s a real danger that hard-won food safety gains are put at risk. From cutting down on packaging and plastic to reducing food waste or driving more responsible sourcing, the actions we need to take on sustainability, almost without exception, carry associated food safety risks. We urgently need a conversation to ensure that as these crucial steps are taken to protect the planet, food safety protocols are re-validated and baseline controls aren’t compromised.

Secondly, we need to recognise that making food safe and making food sustainable are two entirely different challenges that require very different strategies. As food safety professionals, we share similar goals and operate within a well-defined, common framework. It is very hard to imagine progress on sustainability being successfully managed in the same way – the task is simply too broad and organisational priorities too diverse. There is much to be gained by food safety and sustainability teams working more closely together - and in our experience these links are not as strong as they need to be - but greater collaboration should not be conflated with adopting the same approach.

In one sense, however, the way we tackle food safety and sustainability can and should be more aligned. Food safety has long been considered a shared challenge for the industry. At events like GFSI, we put our competitive instincts to one side, talk about our experiences, celebrate best practice and even have the confidence to share and learn from our mistakes.

We will all get further, faster if that same spirit of openness and collaboration can be brought to bear on the food industry’s sustainability challenge. Let’s make GFSI in Barcelona the start.

Kimberly Coffin will be speaking on the topic of making sustainable food safe food at GFSI Conference March 29-31 in Barcelona.

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