Mars and WFP collaborate on food safety for the climate

Executives Maria Velissariou from Mars and Virginia Siebenrok from WFP discuss food safety and how it is impacted by climate change; driven by regulation

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) reminds businesses and individuals that there is more to their industries than emissions. The social aspect of sustainability is valued more and more, which is why food security and the quality of goods has come to light among governing bodies and suppliers of food products. 

One of the biggest names in the industry, Mars expressed a lot of interest in this area as food safety experts take pride in its efforts to secure food supply and quality for the future. Speaking with Dr Maria Velissariou (MV), Global Corporate R&D Vice President and Chief Science Officer, Mars Inc., we delve into her experience in the industry and role in the food safety landscape. 

Velissariou leads the conversation at Mars regarding its approach to quality and food safety as well as its scientific and regulatory affairs and the digitalisation of its research efforts. Her goal at the company is to identify long-term areas for success and approach the adoption of new cutting-edge technologies to support its sustainable practices. 

Also in the conversation is Virginia Siebenrok (VS), Head of Food Safety and Quality for the World Food Programme (WFP), who is an advocate for food safety and is involved in policy-making for the industry. Siebenrok leads packaging research at the organisation and supports the development of regulations to meet climate demands. 

How does climate change affect global food safety? 

MV: It is clear that food safety challenges are increasing around the world. New food safety threats are constantly emerging through factors such as global warming, increased globalisation of trade and changes in agricultural practices and food production.

Regarding climate change specifically, one example to point to is the distribution, frequency, and spread of mycotoxins in staple crops such as maize, wheat and rice. With changing weather patterns, including more extreme events such as droughts and floods, the conditions under which the toxigenic fungi that produce mycotoxins thrive will become more prevalent in a wider range of geographical areas, negatively impacting food security across the whole supply chain. 

VS: Higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification and melting glaciers impact the entire food system from production to distribution. Frequent extreme weather events destroy crops, shatter food chains, cause food shortages and often result in an increase in foodborne hazards. In emergencies like Cyclone Idai in Mozambique in 2019, extreme flooding across vast areas triggered outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera and devastated fragile food systems. We see emerging hazards every year, such as the increased presence of mycotoxins and toxic seeds in grains and changing microbial patterns.

Investing in capacity building, preparation and resilience building to withstand climate shocks is absolutely crucial in ensuring everyone has access to safe, nutritious food, particularly in already vulnerable communities. Focus on prevention is also important, being up-to-date with changing risks and updating our systems early to mitigate impacts is more critical now than ever. Ultimately, food safety is everyone’s business.

What must be done to secure food for the future? 

MV: As a global food manufacturer, we believe we have a responsibility to help solve food safety challenges. Our aim is to support the wellbeing of people across the global food supply chain by helping to ensure safe food for all. 

Our vision is a global systems approach, where regulators, academia, industry partners and non-government organisations come together to share relevant data and critical insights to develop the latest scientific capabilities in areas such as mycotoxin detection, good agricultural practices and data analytics. It is only by working together and sharing best practices that we can help secure safe food for all.

VS: Food safety is at the heart of all WFP operations worldwide. What we distribute is often a very literal lifeline and therefore we have an enormous responsibility to make sure that food is safe from production to the hands of those we serve. If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food. 

Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked, as unsafe food helps to fuel the vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition. The unprecedented humanitarian crisis triggered by the conflict in Ukraine has far-reaching consequences: rising food and fuel prices and the disruption of global supply chains. The impact on food security – particularly in those countries already struggling with conflict and climate change – is severe.

Working with our partners like Mars, we identify and monitor risks, especially of complex, specialized foods as WFP’s food basket adapts to meet evolving needs, ensuring all food we deliver is safe. Investing in capacity building, procuring food and implementing resilience programmes at the local level enables sustainable economic development while engaging with stakeholders – including vulnerable communities – and sharing information is paramount as a local foodborne incident can quickly escalate into an international emergency. Doing this, we can address the root causes of hunger, enabling the most vulnerable to support themselves. 

Future generations are the farmers, innovators and food producers of tomorrow. Empowering young people to actively reshape food systems is a stepping stone on the path to a sustainable, nutritious and food secure future for all.

How does the partnership between Mars and WFP support this?

MV: As a business, we realised early on that with a simple, small shift we can share insight with partners such as WFP to help improve food safety and food security for everybody - just by sharing and building on that experience. It is this exchange of experiences, capability and ideas, not just the financial support that is enabling for all. 

Mars has partnered with WFP since 2015 to provide scientific and strategic guidance and training on food safety and quality assurance to help improve the resilience of supply chains across Africa.  We supported WFP to develop and roll out a Food Incident Management protocol and provided expert training to WFP staff on topics such as good agricultural practice and pest control. This brings benefits not only to strengthen food security across the countries WFP work within, but also helps raise the bar for operational food safety globally by increasing capability across the food chain which we all rely on.  

VS: Effective food safety and quality systems are key to not only safeguarding the health and well-being of people. These systems are also vital to fostering economic development and improving livelihoods by promoting access to domestic, regional and international markets. Through our collaboration with Mars and the exchange of insights with Mars Food Safety experts we can raise the bar in global food safety. 

The sharing of best practices from Mars Food Safety experts as part of our partnership has helped WFP prevent food safety incidents. We count on Mars to share knowledge and expertise to help us continually improve our processes, enabling us to better anticipate and respond to any challenge we face. This enables WFP to further ensure that all food distributed is safe and of high quality, saving more lives. 

During the COVID-19 response, WFP consulted with Mars to adapt our work around COVID-19 restrictions, including co-developing standards for auditing suppliers remotely while travel wasn’t possible, and revising communications about the safety of food packaging. In this way, our partnership with Mars has been a key supporting element in driving better food safety practices within our organisation and means that we will be better able to secure food for future generations.

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