4. Optimising food safety regulatory systems for economic recovery

Regulation played a role at nearly every stage of facing the global health crisis and, going forward, will be a critical element for social and economic recovery. Across policy fields, the pandemic made the need for trusted, evidence-based, internationally co-ordinated and well-enforced regulation particularly acute (OECD, 2020[1]). Governments adapted their use of regulatory management tools, including regulatory impact assessments, stakeholder engagement and ex post evaluation and removed a number of administrative barriers to improve regulatory delivery (OECD, 2020[2]).

As described in the previous sections, the COVID-19 pandemic created various specific challenges to food businesses related in particular to supply chains integrity and workers safety. The pandemic showed the benefits of risk-based control systems which helped regulatory agencies cope with reduced physical inspections. Against this background, authorities responsible for food safety regulation used a diverse range of approaches to combine safeguarding the safety of the food supply and adapting to the major difficulties created by the pandemic, including regulatory easement and enforcement through new tools. Over the past years, countries have made major progress in cutting red tape for citizens and business, putting in place more transparent and better regulations, and ways to deliver them. The health crisis and its social and economic aftermaths present a new opportunity to further rethink and optimise regulatory practices and frameworks, including around food safety.

This chapter discusses briefly the impact of COVID-19 on international food trade, consumer preferences and food safety incidents, assesses challenges faced by control agencies and provides recommendation for simplification of regulatory and management processes. The underlying thread for such efforts should be to make food safety regulatory systems more thoroughly risk-based, and improve transparency, communication and stakeholders engagement so that the problems with consumers’ (and businesses’) trust can be addressed (see Box 4.1). This should be guided by lessons from research and experience, which have helped understand better the drivers of compliance in food safety, and thus better distinguish regulatory instruments that are effective and efficient, from others which may bring more burden than benefits (Blanc and Macrae, 2021[3]).

The changes observed in 2020 implied that businesses needed to modify their suppliers’ management, health and safety procedures and cleaning programs and, in many cases, had to adapt to online sales. Regulators provided guidance to businesses on how to update food safety programs to accommodate for COVID-19-induced changes. The UK Food Standards Agency published an information package to support food businesses with COVID-19 challenges. This included the Reopening checklist for food businesses during COVID-19,1 as well as updated guidance for restaurants offering takeaway and delivery.2 Similar guides were published by the US FDA, the Greek Veterinary Authority, the Jordanian Food and Drug Agency, the Serbian agricultural inspection, among others. The FAO Guidance for food businesses (FAO, 2020[4]) comprised explanations on how to implement basic distancing and provides for cleaning, disinfection and personal hygiene requirements. The International Finance Corporation published a Threats Analysis and Critical Control Points Workbook for businesses to update their food safety management plans (International Finance Corporation, 2020[5]) The FAO Guidelines for livestock production and animal health (FAO, 2020[6]) aims at providing practical recommendations to businesses on how to update good farming practices based on the new situation. Recommendations relate to changes in suppliers, on the need for e-communication with suppliers and buyers, on biosafety and biosecurity measures needed to prevent human contamination with COVID-19 in the farm, on prevention of animal diseases, as well as on cleaning and disinfection and personal hygiene practices.

Control authorities faced various challenges, such as the lack of human resources due to sick leaves and the need to support health systems, reduced testing capacities in laboratories, difficulties to access inspection data by officers working from home, frequent lockdowns’ imposed changes in the inspection plans, food safety incidents and high number of complaints regarding foods sold online and increased pressure by customers, media and governments regarding food security and safety (FAO/WHO, 2020[7]).

Since many businesses decided not to reopen, the control plans of food control agencies needed to be updated. The FSA instructed businesses in the UK to notify all reopenings through the notification platform. Only in countries where businesses had the opportunity to notify their opening/reopening online, did control agencies have the time to adjust their control plans. Having a risk-based classification of facilities helped control agencies to prioritize controls in a situation where physical inspections had to be kept to a minimum. As a rule, slaughterhouses did not close and in EU Member States due to ante- and post mortem control, physical inspections were conducted. Veterinary control authorities continued the inspection of slaughterhouses in Italy and Greece but suspended in other food business operators and performed physical inspection only when food safety incidents occurred. In cases when complaints did not indicate that food safety is jeopardised, control bodies postponed physical inspection and relied on their historical data on compliance of businesses and on proof which businesses provided online.

Risk assessment also helped control authorities to continue monitoring programs for pathogens (animal diseases and zoonosis) as a measure of preventing immediate threats and postponed pesticides monitoring programs 13 Extension services and provision of advice were possible only via phone or the internet. In the UK, FSA did not carry out audits of the voluntary certification scheme Scores on Doors, and instead extended the validity of the already issued marks.

The need for traceability stems from both business and control agencies’ side. Should Norwegian salmon producers not have a solid traceability system, they would have not been able to protect their brand from the Chinese control agency´s claim that Sars-CoV-2 virus or its particles were found in one consignment of the Norwegian salmon. Traceability, once again, proved to be the key for investigating outbreaks and performing efficient recalls when FDA investigated a multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections and linked it to enoki mushrooms imported from Korea. On the other hand, insufficient traceability data, associated with low capacity for strain isolation, prevented Venezuelan control agencies from identifying the source of the Salmonella outbreak in 500 people. Furthermore, consumers´ preferences for more organic, locally sourced and sustainable products require detailed traceability data.

Control authorities are faced with the need to control products sold through e-commerce and to perform more efficient recall, both in the conventional and the online supply chains. The Canadian inspection agency traced bake food over-fortified with vitamins and sold through the internet to the producer Isagenics and performed an effective recall.3 In the UK, meat products (lamb, goat, veal, beef), were supplied to retailers and sold directly to consumers by an unregistered and unapproved Wiltshire based vendor through Facebook. The products did not meet the compliance requirements in terms of food hygiene, safety, labelling and traceability requirements and recall was difficult to perform.4

Food and supplements sold via the internet were consistently found to be advertised as immune boosters, or allegedly as a prevention means for COVID-19. In many countries, there were no specific regulatory provisions for food sold online, and only regulations dealing with consumers rights regulated this area. FAO clarified the issue and indicated that all food safety requirements automatically apply to food sold online. 15 Due to the change in ingredients and recipes, many businesses, had an issue with meeting labelling requirements. Health-related rules for production of very small quantities are just as burdensome. In Serbia in order to support the operation of newly opened small businesses, regulators issued an exemption from approval for producers of small quantities of food of animal origin, based on the regulation regarding flexible approach to structural requirements. FDA issued temporary policy changes and allowed small farms to sell out of their local community.5

Businesses that produce alcoholic beverages required new licenses to start production of medical alcohol, detergents and sanitizers. FAO suggested that instead of going through lengthy approval procedures, in such cases, businesses should be allowed to switch to new production through the process of temporary regulation13. This approach was adopted by regulators in the UK, Ireland and by the US FDA to allow the alcohol beverages producer William Grant & Sons to start production of hand sanitizers.

This section discusses how to use experiences gained from COVID-induced challenges to improve food safety regulation and the control approach on a long-term basis. Where relevant, this section builds on the OECD Best Practice Principles for Regulatory Enforcement and Inspections (OECD, 2014[4]) and its Toolkit (OECD, 2018[5]), both instruments that provide guidance on how to create an effective and resilient regulatory enforcement and control system. They can serve as best practice guidelines to discuss the different lessons learned in the COVID-19 response and as a basis to set recommendations for the future.

Risk based and flexible regulations: Regulatory systems based on the risk paradigm allowed food businesses to keep their products safe by performing risk assessment of all materials and processes, which needed to change, and by updating their food safety plans to accommodate these changes (Box 4.2). Although such changes were sometimes associated with food incidents, it has to be investigated how prevention of contacts, but also stricter cleaning and disinfection requirements, reflected the frequency of gastrointestinal pathogens transmission through food.

The crisis revealed that flexibility is not embedded in all regulations. When faced with such a case, regulators must be ready to issue temporary solutions. Systems based on technical regulations, the changes of raw materials, and inputs or technological process can only be amended for a particular product. This is because this is a lengthy and costly process and to solve the problem, regulators must devise new strategies (World Bank Group, 2014[8]). Even the systems based on general principles and risk-based regulations have to use temporary regulation to allow local producers to sell products outside of the designated local boundaries. Examples of temporary regulations introducing easements or additional flexibility include the US FDA’s “temporary policy”6 or extensions of licenses’ scope to allow distillers to also produce hydro-alcoholic solution, in a number of countries.7

The crisis context has also put in starker light the problems created by fragmentation of the regulatory system, with overlapping layers of rules and institutions. While frequent difficulties are reported by food safety regulators in terms of having sufficient resources to conduct official controls effectively (European Commission, 2020[9]), these resource constraints often reflect institutional fragmentation and duplication, or inefficiency of internal and external processes (e.g. linked to the registration or approval of food business operators, etc.). Such fragmentation also leads to significant issues in terms of regulatory consistency and predictability (Drozd et al., 2018[10]).

Assessing the number of inspectors in charge of a regulatory area (in this case, food safety) is difficult. Indeed, in spite of data on employment in public administrations being generally public, many countries, institutions or services do not keep specific track of inspectors or staff with inspection powers and functions, or do not have consolidated information on all the institutions involved in a given regulatory field. The complexity of regulatory delivery systems where national/federal, state/regional, local/municipal services all can be simultaneously active in a given field makes the task even more challenging. So does the fact that a given regulatory area can be covered by several services, but also that one given service or institution can be, in some countries, active across more than one regulatory field – in which case estimates of resource allocation between these different mandates is not always available.

For these reasons, the OECD Secretariat has so far been unable to present full data for all OECD members, and even when data is available in some areas, it is not always present for all. The preliminary results of this work show that available resources are often considerable, but may be spread across a number of institutions. They also indicate that there are sharp variations in “intensity” of supervision in terms of number of inspectors by inhabitant, worker, or enterprise, even between neighbouring and otherwise comparable data. This all shows the importance not only of continuing such research and covering more countries and regulatory fields, as well as obtaining more detailed data, but also for countries to conduct such exercises periodically and systematically to review whether the institutional framework and resources are still fit-for-purpose (see Table 4.1).

Overall, the crisis shows that food safety regulations and regulatory delivery should be further developed towards a more risk-based, more flexible and less fragmented system, so as to support businesses and increase their compliance. Regulators need to allow businesses to: a) be aware of, and understand, all key regulations applicable to their business; b) avoid discrepancy in risk assessment and management of the same problem in different regulatory documents; and to c) avoid over-regulation by creating risk based and proportionate norms which will allow fast reaction to crisis while keeping the same level of food safety. This regulatory flexibility follows the OECD recommendation for having norms which are risk-based, more proportionate and simpler in order to allow businesses to address urgent needs.

As a result of lockdowns and other restrictions due to COVID-19, and the reduced capacity in laboratories, inspections and monitoring plans were either partially realized or fully postponed. As per FAO and WHO recommendations (FAO, 2020[6]) (FAO/WHO, 2020[7]), monitoring plans for animal diseases continued while national bodies were left to decide when to resume, and to what extent, activities related to plant protection monitoring. Authorities adopted specific guidance to allow for such flexibility (see Box 4.3).

Engaging third parties to perform inspections and relying on data from efficient food management systems (such as FSMS certification) can help improve resilience of regulatory inspections and achieve overall reduction in the frequency or emergency suspension of checks and visits. In Croatia, the practice of having official veterinarians trained to perform ante and post-mortem inspection in slaughterhouses dates from the 1990s (Miskulin et al., 2012[11]), and, similarly, in Finland8 veterinarians perform control of animal welfare on a local level. This is in line with Regulation EC 625/2017, which stipulates that official control bodies may delegate audits and inspections (and not actions in case of non-compliance) to a body or a natural person if they have the knowledge, experience, human capacities and equipment, and are impartial and free of conflict of interest when performing their duty according to the instructions provided by the official control body. For the third-party body, additional request is to be accredited. FSMS certificate issued by accredited body is considered as a factor that decreases the risk of a food facility in the Italian province of Lombardy and in Denmark.9

In times of crisis, but also in regular situations when there is shortage of staff and other capacities, prioritisation of control plans should be considered and then preference given to those which prevent and control immediate threats (Box 4.4). Use of third-party audit and inspection results may help realize inspection plans, while at the same time help manage human resources and costs. At the same time, the use of FSMS certificates as an indicator of good compliance will stimulate businesses to implement standards and engage more in self-control.

A number of authorities responsible for food safety control relied on contingency and emergency management plans to carry out their functions while facing the COVID-19 crisis (Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 2020[6]). Due to shortage of staff, lack of laboratory capacities and other relevant restrictions, those plans had to be changed ad-hoc (FAO/WHO, 2020[7]). The COVID crisis was unprecedented and control bodies could not have anticipated the level of disturbances. Experiences show that future emergency control plans should rely more on cooperation between agencies in international trade, to avoid disproportionate measures not based on risk (such as export and import bans).

Future contingency, emergency management and monitoring planning needs to be stress-tested for situations where human and testing capacities are reduced and where logistical problems impair the implementation of any strategy. They have to include the risk assessment of discontinuation of some of the plans and prioritisation of control activities.

The UK experience with online notification of facilities, for instance the re-opening and online change of data in the database of registered/approved facilities, as well as, the effort to simplify measures concerning very small businesses, or businesses trading online, can be seen as a step towards simplification of registration procedures, but also, as a strong support to control bodies´ planning inspections based on accurate data.

Experience e.g. from Ethiopia show that food safety is not jeopardized when licenses for retailers are extended without inspection (FAO, 2020[12]). In Greece, before the Law on licensing was introduced, a pre-condition for starting and operating a food business was the issuance of a license based on the results of an inspection, no matter of the type of business. The license was time limited and required renewal, based on inspection. Simplification of processes to open a food business, and revision of licensing policy proved to boost Greek food start-ups and did not impair food safety.10

Food control authorities should engage in digitalisation of food business registration, but also in reducing the number of licenses needed to start a food business (see Box 4.5). Experiences of countries which perform ex ante inspections only in facilities which need an approval, should be used by those where ex ante inspections require engagement of control staff, unnecessarily extend time for- and increase costs of starting a business.

Previous knowledge concerning producers/importers’ compliance, may help decide on whether there is a need to physically conduct inspections or if samples for testing will suffice, and, if by doing so, the samples can be prioritised.

Use of self-administered checklists and communicating the results of self-audit to control agencies was recommended by FAO to reduce physical contacts between businesses and inspectors as a direct result of the COVID crisis. The US FDA and the Irish food safety control authorities, for instance, decided to develop such checklists, and use communications from businesses about results of their self-control when discussing with the control agency the reopening of its facilities. In regular situations, control agencies may use self-control data in combination with historical data on business´ compliance, to postpone inspection and reduce the frequency of physical control. Physical inspection will remain needed in case of proven food safety incidents.

Risk proportionate control is recommended for border control. Then, trust in producers and importers, derived from good previous inspection records and the level of equivalency between the regulatory and control systems in import and export country, should govern the type and frequency of control (FAO, 2015[13]). The US foreign food facility inspections approach identifies products in compliance with the US regulations and foresees potential food safety problems before products arrive in the USA. The COVID-induced recent Chinese experiences with relaxation of import and export procedures, based on the knowledge of importers and/or producers, is another example, which indicates how import control can better target potential non-conformant consignments.

Online pre-announcements of shipments are a common practice in USA for all imported consignments. Equally, in EU, the TRACES system allows shipments of animals and food of animal origin to be electronically submitted to relevant inspection bodies. Using electronic certificates or scans and by utilising the interconnectedness between control agencies, inspection clearance processes were accelerated, the number of papers was reduced, and so was the number of contacts between inspectors and owners of consignment. Both practices increased efficiency by reducing costs and allocating resources appropriately the number of persons involved in the control of each consignment was minimised.

The need for healthier food and overall food safety persists. Consumers are expected to seek proof of authenticity (locally produced products, organic, those with controlled and geographical marks), as well as, proof that production has been performed in compliance with environmental sustainability standards. Any claims related to authenticity cannot be investigated if products are not traceable and digital tools can be useful in demand side traceability quests (Baragwanath, 2021[14]). Regulatory agencies should facilitate data sharing (trans-boundary) to accelerate the investigation of potential frauds. More information regarding traceability will ensure better identification of products in the supply chain. The new technology used to capture data, such as Blockchain, can process a huge amount of data and be very useful for tracing such products, but it becomes obsolete when data is inconsistent. The first step towards more consistency will be to support businesses in implementing global standards, such as GS1. The second step would be better data governance. For example, standardized collation of data and sharing of IT platforms for communication of data between control agencies. An example of such a platform is in the EU Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System (AAC system), which helps agencies share data on trans-border non-compliance. AAC system is in line with the Regulation EC 625/2017 which requires collaboration between agencies and information exchange. This system (or some similar platform) may be used to investigate transboundary incidents associated will food and especially with that sold online.

Reduction of costs and smart working will be prioritised in the future. Control agencies should explore the regulatory and practical solutions to lay the foundation for smart working. In order to do that, data privacy rules and procedures in agencies must allow inspectors to access the inspections´ data. For instance in Australia,11 a system of dual identification has been implemented which allows officers to access the inspection databases, via mobile phones. This has been used since 2019 and has been proved to be both secure and efficient.

Stakeholders’ satisfaction (businesses and public) should be the object of such reforms. Regulatory and control bodies are expected to safeguard the resiliency of food safety systems, to face all existing and new hazards and non-food related crises likely to affect food security. In the post-COVID era, the tendency to reduce burden incurred by businesses concerning the costs associated with official controls, will become even more prominent given the reduced annual profits. This highlights the need to improve understanding of businesses´self control systems and recognition of process testing results, instead of succumbing to excessive sampling and testing of official samples.

The COVID crisis stressed the need for risk-based, simpler, more efficient, and proportionate regulation. To achieve efficient control, cooperation and data sharing between businesses and control bodies must be prioritised. Since hazards will continue to appear, the capacity of the public and private sector to assess risk and to adapt to new situations by employing the best management solutions, will determine whether provisions can be secured at affordable prices. The new international trade channels require enhanced traceability, but also the use of new technological solutions for data collation and sharing of information.

Online trade requires transparent regulations and collaboration between agencies to monitor food incidents and oversee the management of possible solutions. Increased digitalisation of control operations will help overcome the need for more staff, equipment, support, smart working and accelerated processes, thereby enabling repositories to assess, analyse and estimate data of future trends.


[14] Baragwanath, T. (2021), “Digital opportunities for demand-side policies to improve consumer health and the sustainability of food systems”, OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Papers, No. 148, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/bec87135-en.

[3] Blanc, F. and D. Macrae (2021), “Food Safety Compliance”, in The Cambridge Handbook of Compliance.

[10] Drozd, M. et al. (2018), Poland catching-up regions 2 - Safer food, better business in Podkarpackie and Lubelskie, World Bank Group, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/289891529314549019/Poland-catching-up-regions-2-Safer-food-better-business-in-Podkarpackie-and-Lubelskie.

[9] European Commission (2020), On the overall operation of official controls performed in Member States (2017-2018) to ensure the application of food and feed law, rules on animal health and welfare, plant health and plant protection products, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/txt/pdf/?uri=celex:52020dc0756.

[4] FAO (2020), COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/covid-19-and-food-safety-guidance-for-food-businesses.

[6] FAO (2020), Guidelines to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on livestock production and animal health, FAO, https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9177en.

[12] FAO (2020), Responding to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on food value chains through efficient logistics, http://www.fao.org/3/cb1292en/cb1292en.pdf.

[13] FAO (2015), Risk based imported food control Manual, FAO, http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/caec22a2-b63d-4c27-861d-dd75788ec1d1/.

[7] FAO/WHO (2020), COVID-19 and Food Safety: Guidance for competent authorities responsible for national food safety control systems, http://www.fao.org/3/ca8842en/CA8842EN.pdf.

[5] International Finance Corporation (2020), Food Safety Handbook: A Practical Guide for Building a Robust Food Safety Management System, Washington, DC: World Bank, http://dx.doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-1548-5.

[11] Miskulin, M. et al. (2012), “Food Safety System in Croatia”, in Environmental and Food Safety and Security for South-East Europe and Ukraine, NATO Science for Peace and Security Series C: Environmental Security, Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2953-7_2.

[1] OECD (2020), OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19): Removing administrative barriers, improving regulatory delivery, OECD, Paris, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=136_136528-76wdv8q5eb&title=Removing-administrative-barriers-improving-regulatory-delivery (accessed on 15 February 2021).

[2] OECD (2020), Regulatory quality and COVID-19: Managing the risks and supporting the recovery, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/3f752e60-en.

[8] World Bank Group (2014), Food Safety Toolkit - Risk Assessment, Enforcement and Inspections, World Bank Group, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/829181471594886767/pdf/107902-v5-wp-tag-topic-investment-climate-public.pdf.

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