DIRECTEUR GÉNÉRAL ADJOINT ALAN WM. WOLFF

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Assistant Director-General Yamamoto
Assistant Director-General Torero
Distinguished rapporteurs of the technical sessions
Dear Forum participants
Ladies and gentlemen

It has been a pleasure for the WTO to host this International Forum on Food Safety and Trade at the WTO over the last two days. Let me start by thanking FAO and WHO for all their support, and all participants for your interest and your contributions. Food safety is truly a subject in which we are all interested, and more so as a result of these two days of excellent presentations.

None of us will forget the heart-breaking story of the two-year-old son of one of our first speakers whose life was snuffed out horribly within 12 days of ingesting food borne pathogens.

We will not forget that almost one in ten people worldwide are sickened annually by tainted food, and 420 000 die from it (a third of whom are children). 

Overall, 33 million years of healthy life are lost to foodborne diseases.

We will not forget that the problem is as great a burden for humankind as malaria or tuberculosis.

We now know that low- and middle-income countries are estimated, in aggregate, to experience a productivity loss of some USD 95 billion per year because of unsafe food.

These are great challenges that we need to tackle together. I was thus pleased about the future-oriented focus of this meeting, on new technologies, trade facilitation, and harmonized regulation, all in the interest of food safety.

Growing digitalization and use of new technologies are already having an impact on both food safety and trade, as we heard in the first thematic session this morning.  Digitalization is creating new opportunities in terms of improving connectivity, transparency and reducing fraud, hence contributing to a more effective operation of food value chains.

We heard that improved traceability has reduced the tracking time of a package of sliced mangoes from 6 days to mere seconds. This brings farmers closer to consumers and allows ensuring the safety and quality of the product as it moves from farm to table.

At the same time, several challenges need to be addressed to ensure that digitalization is equitable, trusted and inclusive. These include ensuring governance, confidence and capacity building throughout value chains. Technological advances need to strike the balance between being innovative and human-centred so that benefits can reach farmers and consumers.

Governments have a key role to play in building a "smarter food system", including by developing technological and communications infrastructure, building capacity and supporting research and development. There is a need for investments to spread the value of digitalization and minimize the associated risks.

As we heard in the second session, digital technologies can play a key role in the implementation of the WTO's Trade Facilitation Agreement, including single window systems and electronic certification, as we heard from Canada and Singapore this morning.

The Trade Facilitation Agreement aims at reducing unnecessary red tape, lowering trade costs and helping trade flow more smoothly. Importantly, it also aims to reduce the time needed for border procedures, which is imperative for perishable products, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, trade facilitation must never come at the expense of food safety.  Food safety agencies need the capacity to ensure effective controls for imported food, and they need to be involved in discussions about the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

Cooperation among different border agencies plays a key role. Very practical steps, such as coordinating their opening hours, or ensuring that several agencies do not require submission of the same original documents, can make a big difference.

For a small trader in a developing country, finding out what exactly needs to be done to allow its products to cross a border can be daunting.  Making such information easily accessible is another simple step that can help producers and traders comply with food safety requirements while simultaneously lowering trade costs.

Regulators all over the world find themselves having to address the challenges of assuring food safety while allowing producers, suppliers and consumers to have the benefits of trade.  Identifying the main food safety risks and developing a clear policy to address them is important for both exporting and importing countries.  Sharing the responsibility for food safety with the private sector, and focusing controls on priority risks can free up resources.  We learned that Singapore imports 90% of its food from 180 countries, and ensures a high level of food safety with minimal checks at the border.

Dialogue and regular exchanges among regulators are needed to share information on the approaches taken and to ensure that they are compatible.  WTO Committees are fora where WTO Members engage in this type of dialogue on trade-related issues, to increase an understanding of the measures members contemplate taking, and to create and follow best practices; FAO and WHO provide important fora from the agriculture and health perspectives. Again, collaboration across sectors is crucial, for example to tackle challenges such as antimicrobial resistance.

As was emphasized in the third session, the joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission plays a key role in this respect. It sets the international food standards that guide Members in their domestic food safety regulations. These international standards are basic for WTO Members, and as such are referenced in the SPS Agreement. Aligning their domestic food safety requirements is another practical step that Members can take to simultaneously enhance food safety and facilitate safe trade.

While it may sound easy, doing so requires investments in capacity at home, to make sure that Codex standards can be implemented and enforced. It also requires investments and engagement in Codex work, to ensure that Codex standards reflect the different realities around the globe, and to develop new guidance in response to the challenges discussed here today.  One objective that we all share is to make standards that are created more accessible and less of a hurdle for micro, medium and small enterprises. 

Throughout the two days, we heard that improving food safety requires a multi-sectoral, inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach that cuts across agriculture, health, trade, economic development, tourism and other areas.

Food safety is a shared responsibility and depends on building capacity and improving cooperation across different government agencies, as well as with the private sector, consumer organizations and others involved in the food chain.

Building strong partnerships, among international and regional organizations, among stakeholders along value chains, and across the public and private sector is essential.

Our thanks again to all of the participants in this International Forum on Food Safety and Trade – those who presented and those who asked penetrating questions. You made a significant contribution to a process of international engagement over last two days that will I trust not end here.

With this, I now declare this Forum is now closed.

I wish you all a safe journey home.

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