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Do secondary standards make our food safer?

In a panel discussion, five food chain experts tried to answer this question. Food safety, however, is only one aspect of the complexity of private standards.

“As consumers, we all expect that the food we pick off the shelf will be safe,” said Stephen Humphreys of Bayer UK, who acted as moderator, at the beginning of the discussion. In Europe, consumers can rest assured, because the EU’s regulatory environment for food production is among the most stringent in the world. Nevertheless, some retailers – due to a desire to be extra careful as well as pressure from non-government organizations (NGOs) – have introduced secondary standards that exceed the legal obligations.

Ben Horsbrugh: “Retailers are beginning to realize it’s worth asking their supply chain – upon whom they’re depending – what their technical options are. That’s a change I’ve seen happening in the last five years.”

During the panel discussion hosted in Monheim, Germany on November 29, five experts from the value chain addressed the somewhat provocative question “Do secondary standards make our food safer?” The panelists were Ignacio Antequera of GLOBALG.A.P., an internationally recognized standard for good agricultural practices; Philippe Binard of Freshfel Europe, the forum for the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain; Ben Horsbrugh of Greenyard Fresh, a global market leader in fresh and prepared fruits and vegetables as well as growing media; and Birte Tschentke of Food Chain Relations at Bayer.

While the initial question focused on food safety, it turned out that, when discussing secondary standards, one must also talk about the influence these standards have on sustainable agriculture and, above all else, how the food value chain can approach this topic in a reasonable fashion, looking for solutions that benefit everyone from farmers to end consumers. “We need concrete, measurable examples,” said Ben Horsbrugh.

Ignacio Antequera: “What are the threats for retailers? Threats come from food safety crises – and their response is secondary standards.”

Three kinds of standards
The fresh produce sector in Europe has to deal with three kinds of standards. First, there are primary standards, set, for example, by the European Commission, which all participants in the food value chain have to follow. In addition to these legally mandated standards, there are voluntary standards from certification systems, such as GLOBALG.A.P. “Our standards are written by consensus, between growers and retailers,” explained Ignacio Antequera.

“Secondary standards, on the other hand, are imposed top-down by retailers,” he added. These private standards are developed individually by retailers and usually exceed the legal obligations. Secondary standards regulate the number of allowed residues, define lower MRLs, and limit or ban the use of certain plant protection products – even though these products are officially registered and their safety has been proven.

Philippe Binard: “I think we operate in a sector which is over-controlled.”

Retailers under public scrutiny
“When it comes to food safety, we in Europe probably have the strictest legislation in the world. But consumers are still unsure,” said Philippe Binard. NGOs regularly nurture such fears and, consequently, are putting ever increasing pressure on retailers. That is why retailers introduced private standards in the first place. “It’s all about brand protection, the brand promise of retailers,” said Ben Horsbrugh. “And the worst thing for retailers is to be exposed by an NGO.”

Since retailers – that is, supermarkets – are the face of the fruit and vegetable supply for end consumers, they must do everything in their power to guarantee their product is safe. “The pressure on retailers is huge,” Philippe Binard conceded. However, do secondary standards truly make our food safer? “I really don’t know,” said Ben Horsbrugh. “But you’re never going to win that battle, arguing against secondary standards.”

Birte Tschentke: “What we need to be talking about is promoting sustainable agriculture and good agricultural practices – and this is where we at Bayer really can support the farmers.”

Additional pressure on growers
All panelists agreed that whether or not secondary standards make food safer is not the relevant question to ask – because in Europe, food is safe. The real issue, they argued, is whether these private standards make agriculture more sustainable. “I think we need to shift the discussion away from just banning substances and reducing MRLs to promoting good agricultural practices much more,” said Birte Tschentke.

Farmers need tools to control weeds, pests, and diseases so they can protect their crops – and they need to rotate products in order to avoid resistance. “Secondary standards put additional pressure on the growers,” said Birte Tschentke. “It’s not an appropriate way of ensuring sustainable production methods.”

Solutions that benefit everyone
At the end of the discussion, Stephen Humphreys asked the panelists how they expect this issue to develop in the future. “These private standards will not just disappear,” said Philippe Binard. “We have to work on practical solutions so that growers have all the tools – but we must also look at solutions for traders and retailers.”

From left to right: Ignacio Antequera (GLOBALG.A.P.), Philippe Binard (Freshfel Europe), Birte Tschentke (Bayer AG), Ben Horsbrugh (Greenyard Fresh), Stephen Humphreys (Bayer UK)

“Part of this process will be that we need to explain the different standards and communicate it to the growers; but we must also deal with the perceptions of consumers,” said Ignacio Antequera. This is all the more important since secondary standards confuse consumers and, more often than not, create unjustified fears.

“We must find solutions that are of common interest,” concluded Ben Horsbrugh. Needless to say, these solutions must continue to ensure food safety – yet they must also foster sustainable agriculture and focus on capacity building for farmers around the world.

Source: Bayer Food Chain Partnership
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