COVID19 Changes the Way We Think of Food Safety
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COVID19 Changes the Way We Think of Food Safety

THE PANDEMIC SEEMS TO HAVE STARTED FROM THE STALLS OF AN OPEN AIR MARKET, WITH POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS ON THE USE OF THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE IN INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENTS, WHICH LEONARDO BORLINI IS STUDYING

The coronavirus probably passed from bats to humans in a live animal market in Wuhan. This circumstance brings to the fore the theme of food safety, dealt with in the the Sanitary and Phitosanitary Standards chapters of the international free trade agreements. It also changes the perspectives of the research project The Future of Food Safety and Sustainability in Globally Integrated Markets, which Leonardo Borlini, Assistant Professor of International Law, was supposed to complete in the coming months at Erasmus University in Rotterdam with Alessandra Arcuri, thanks to a grant from the Dutch Research Council. «The coronavirus makes the precautionary principle paramount», says Prof. Borlini, «and could pave the way for environmental impact considerations in food risk assessment».
 
In previous work carried out at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy under a Fulbright Research Scholar Grant, Prof. Borlini identified and analyzed all the rules of international free trade agreements concerning food safety and highlighted the negotiating position of three major players: the European Union, the United States and China. According to the precautionary principle, if there are well-founded grounds for fearing possible harmful effects on the environment and on the health of humans, animals and plants, but there is not scientific consensus, measures can still be taken to minimize or avoid potential risks. The principle is defended by the European Union and criticized by the other economic powers, which believe it can be used as a protectionist tool. «After the coronavirus, though» comments Prof. Borlini, «it is clear that the EU will have even less reason to change its position on this issue, while the US and China may face the need to accept its wider use and its inclusion in the new preferential agreements yet to be concluded. National regulators will thus have more elbow room to block the import of certain foods on the basis of this principle, without committing an international offence».
 
Another aspect of the coronavirus that, if confirmed, could affect food safety is the fact that it has mainly hit highly polluted areas. Worldwide, research is underway to ascertain whether pollution contributes to the spread of the virus and the severity of its symptoms, affecting lungs already weakened by smog. «Any decision to allow or block the import of a food», explains Prof. Borlini, «must be preceded by a risk assessment. Now, I'm thinking of products with redundant packaging, such as some packs of sausage or cheese with individual slices separated by plastic sheets: if the environmental damage will have a greater weight in the food risk assessment, legal conditions will exist to limit the use of such packaging, otherwise the products will be less internationally marketable".
 
In the wake of the outbreak of the pandemic, Prof. Borlini also launched a research project on Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility programs, such as the so-called Pandemic Bonds, managed by the World Bank. «These are instruments aimed at financing the management of pandemic situations in developing countries, which are less equipped to deal with them. In the past, with Ebola, they showed clear weaknesses and there is consensus that they should be changed. We need to understand how to change them for the better».

by Fabio Todesco

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