‘National responsibility to ensure safety of food is a concept of adding caring to safety’
Dir.-Gen. Han Sang-bae of the Food Safety Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS). (Photo: MFDS)
Starting this year, the pesticide positive list system (PLS) has gone into force to ensure safety management of pesticides from the stage of production.
The regime is designed to control all pesticides in a strict fashion: to non-detection levels, so pesticide safety management is expected to be upgraded to prevent pesticide overuse and misuse from a stage of production.
Furthermore, on-the-spot inspection booths will be installed at public wholesale markets, and a project to support inspections prior to distribution in cooperation with distribution companies and inspection booths will be implemented to keep improper agricultural produce off the dining table.
National responsibility to ensure the safety of food means adding “caring” to safety. It is designed not only to keep strict management from production to consumption so that the safety of supplies can be ensured, but also for the state to be responsible for caring about the foods of the vulnerable like children and the elderly.
The following are excerpts of an interview with NewsWorld and Dir.-Gen. Han Sang-bae of the Food Safety Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) in which he spoke of the steps and others to ensure the safety of food.
Question: One of the MFDS’s core national objectives under the current government is a realization of the national responsibility to ensure the safety of food. Will you introduce how that is happening?
Answer: The national responsibility to ensure the safety of food means adding “caring” to safety. It is designed not only to keep strict management from production to consumption so that the safety of supplies can be ensured, but also for the state to be responsible for caring about the foods of the vulnerable like children and the elderly.
In order to ramp up safety management, ranging from production and consumption, the ministry is concentrating on safety management in stages of production and consumption — the start and end points of the food supply chain — on top of surveillance and inspections focusing on the manufacturing process.
We’re also working on the creation of management regimes, reflecting the latest consumption trends like home meal replacements and delivery apps as well as the provision of information to consumers.
As to the dietary life of the underprivileged, hygiene management of food being served at children’s homes and in kindergartens without nutritionists and nutrient support are being continuously expanded. Starting this year, the ministry has expanded the scope of food management to social welfare facilities for the elderly.
Q: The ministry has focused all capabilities to ensure safety management from production and consumption. Will you tell our readers about key policies and outcomes?
A: Starting this year, the pesticide positive list system (PLS) has gone into force to ensure safety management of pesticides from the stage of production.
The regime is designed to control all pesticides in a strict fashion: to non-detection levels, so pesticide safety management is expected to be upgraded to prevent pesticide overuse and misuse from the production stage.
Furthermore, on-the-spot inspection booths will be installed at public whole-sale markets, and a project to support inspections prior to distribution in cooperation with distribution companies and the booths will be implemented to keep improper agricultural produce off the kitchen table.
Reflecting trends like a rise in eating outside, HMRs and food deliveries, food safety management at a stage of consumption has been reinforced. An eatery grading system is in place to improve the hygiene levels of restaurants.
The step has dramatically reduced food poisoning cases from 251 cases with 2,120 people in 2016 to 146 cases with 1,032 people. Improper HMRs are recalled immediately to prevent consumption while food delivery app operators are required to report on food containing alien substances.
Q: Caring for the dietary life of those in the privileged bracket is noteworthy from the conventional paradigm of food safety management. Will you specify efforts to protect the underprivileged and share some tangible outcomes?
A: We’ve expanded hygiene and nutrition support to facilities like children’s houses and kindergartens that do not have nutritionists to improve the dietary life of the underprivileged.
As a result, beneficiary children of registered food supply support facilities increased from 1.24 million with 34,292 facilities in 2018 to 1.32 million with 36,796 establishments.
Starting this year, a pilot program has been launched to support social welfare facilities for the elderly. These steps are designed to expand the scope of state responsibility, contributing to realizing an inclusive welfare state.
In particular, Korea is recognized by the international community as a leading country of children’s dietary life policies. The nation ranked eighth, a top level, among 141 countries in terms of national competitiveness in the health sector thanks to factors such as the improved life expectancy.
In recognition for such efforts, Korea won the United Nations Interagency Task Force on the prevention and control of Non-communicable Diseases (UNIATF) Award 2019 at the 74th UN General Assembly held in the United States on Sept. 23.
Q: Government enforcement is important for the safety of food, but it is more significant for consumers to make the right decisions after related information is known to them. Will you elaborate on efforts to provide information to consumers?
A: Currently, information on improper food items and eateries is provided in real time via the website (www.foodsafetykorea.go.kr). A food labeling system has information on food safety such as allergies and natrium known to consumers.
In particular, starting this year, the requirement of labeling egg shells with production dates, producer and production environment will help people choose safe and fresh eggs.
Furthermore, a website has been launched that specializes in collecting and analyzing information on hazards and dangers of foods from Korea and abroad, so information tailored to meet each demand category are is made available. The ministry continues to strive to provide content to consumers.
Of late, the ministry is also attempting to promote safety management through consumers’ direct participation beyond the simply the supply of information. For instance, look at a public petition on safety inspection, designated recently as one of the innovative practices in the public sector by the OECD.
If a given number of people ask for an inspection into food as well as items under the jurisdiction of the MFDS, the ministry itself does tests and the outcomes are released to the public.
Q: Many imported food items are put on our dining table due to the internationalization of our food supply. Amid rising misgivings, fishery products imported from Japan have become the subject of controversy. What is being done to ensure the safety of food from Japan?
A: I’m pleased to see the public trust toward the government go up one step as Korea won a dispute at a WTO panel through the government’s efforts.
After Korea won a dispute on its ban of Japanese fishery products, import curbs on food imported from Japan are still intact. Starting September, the ministry began to redouble inspection for raionuclides on imported food items that have a track record of containing small amounts of the substance in recent years.
Q: Public worry has been mounting over food items made with pork in the wake of the recent spread of the African swine fever (ASF) virus. Does the ASF virus infect only pigs, but human beings?
A: Generally speaking, unlike bacteria, viruses cannot proliferate on their own and can sustain themselves only when they’re united with certain cells. It is like the matching of a key and a lock. It means that the virus prefers to pork cells, so the virus cannot be contagious to human beings since it does not match any human proteins due to species specificity.
In reality, about 100 years have passed since the ASF virus was confirmed, no cases of endangering human health and infecting humans through mutation were reported. International institutions such as OIE and FAO have confirmed that the ASF virus is not a danger to human health.
Heath authorities say that African swine fever (ASF) virus is a virus, which infects pigs, but not human beings. Do not worry about eating pork since only pork, from uninfected pigs checked at slaughterhouses, is distributed on the market, they add.
Q: Pork prices have plunged due to incidences of the ASF virus. It is the reason people tend to refrain from eating pork due to public misgivings over safety. Experts told media outlets it is safe to eat pork. Is it no problem to eat pork?
A: Pigs infected with the ASF virus or feared to transmit it are removed from stages of production and slaughter. Pigs in danger of infecting the virus are slaughtered and buried, and pigs with abnormal symptoms are banned from slaughtering at butcheries.
The MFDS is cracking down on distributing and selling of unreported and illegal livestock in food groceries at foreigners’ concentration districts in cooperation with related ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
As I said before, I recommend eating pork without anxiety since the ASF virus does not infect human beings due to species specificity. As the virus can be killed in the course of cooking through enough heating, it causes no worry to Korea’s food supply.