Posted in Consumer, Food Safety, Food Security, Food Systems on Mar 01, 2019

Standard setting organisations

The phrase “standards setting organisation” is one that is often used by those involved in food processing or food regulations; but to those whose focus is on a being consumer, it is something of a mysterious and bureaucratic sounding phrase. The thing is; however, standards are important as they provide us with a baseline level of acceptability and, therefore there needs to be a robust process to ensure that they are fair, fit-for-purpose and measurable.

A standard for standards

But what does this actually mean? When you look back at the origin of the word standard it comes from a contraction of two Latin words – meaning to ‘stand hard’ or stand firm. In the true sense of the word, there is only one standard (from a historic perspective this was the flag that the Roman legions stood behind – it was their standard) but the modern adaptation of the word sees it applied as a series of ‘things’ that must be adhered to. What is of interest here is firstly, who decides what the standard should be; and, secondly, who polices it.

The answer, of course, is it’s not simple. There are multiple standards and multiple people who are responsible for ensuring that food companies adhere to them. As with the blog post on regulations, the definition and adaptation of standards is not universal with what is acceptable in one territory being unacceptable in another (for more on this see: Will science save us).

Matching a food to a standard

Primarily of interest in this paper is the idea that assuming a standard has been set, how do we know that a food product matches that standard? There is more to this discussion than a paper trail. With food and food science, there is a need for universal measures that describe how something should appear, how it should react, what it should contain, and the list continues. One of the simplest implementations of a standard mixes fashion (just joking) and fruit ripeness. Horticulture NZ has developed a series of wrist bands (much like the ones you get for your favourite charity or nightclub entrance) that allows fruit pickers to match the colour of the fruit with a predetermined standard (indicated by the colour of the band which indicates ripeness for a specific fruit). That is the implementation of a food standard in one of its simplest forms; and one that is applied to a not-very-complex product. But what happens when the food item in question is more complicated- such as a processed food?

A standard can only be measured if there is a universal way of recognising it. Stating that a food ingredient must be of ‘good quality’ means very little if that quality cannot be measured; and if it is to be measured then there needs to be a reference for it to be measured against. Work of organisations such as the United States Pharmacopeial Convention are important in developing standards alongside the reference material required to measure against. A simple analogy – if you were to cut a piece of string to be 10cm long, you would use a ruler, tape measure, smart phone or some other device as your reference measure. Similarly with food products, if you are to state that something is ‘pure vanilla’ then you need to know, scientifically, what pure vanilla looks like, how it is tested, and what comparable reference material looks like.

Who sets a standard?

The process for deciding ‘a’ standard is complex and, in some ways, is not dissimilar to trade negotiations. Those with vested interests in how an ingredient should appear (in the vanilla example consider those who grow vanilla and produce a vanilla extract compared with those who develop an artificial vanilla essence). While the specifications for an ingredient are one thing to be determined, how it is labelled is another (and not for this paper – but for reference in the vanilla example they would be labelled quite differently).

What does need to be determined is how, scientifically, each is measured and how, scientifically, each is determined as being safe. This, in essence (pun intended) is the crux of standard setting. Simplified, the process is thus: developing criteria for determining something is safe and then determining the criteria for measuring to ensure that the ingredient in question meets or exceeds that standard of safety. Those criteria are often highly scientific and reliant on determination of exacting scientific methods, ranges for results, and interpretation and reporting of findings.

Standards + chemistry

It all sounds very clinical, and, in a lot of respects, it is. However, in the words of the grandfather of food authenticity, Frederick Accum “Cookery, or the art of preparing good and wholesome food, and of preserving all sorts of alimentary substances in a state fit for human sustenance, or rendering that agreeable to the taste which is essential to the support of life, and of pleasing the palate without injury to the system, is, strictly speaking, a branch of chemistry; but, important as it is both to our enjoyments and our health, it is also one of the latest cultivated branches of the science” (Frederick Accum, 1769-1838). It is, therefore, fair to say that the association between chemistry and food is a natural one and one that has both protected us and has enabled the development of new food types. In addition to being able to quantitatively measure the ‘quality’ of a food product the application of scientific standard also provides us with the tools necessary to determine if something is not what is should be – if it is fake.

The idea of standards, of having measurement tools, and implementing them is all very well and good but there always remains the human ability to doubt and cast aspersions over the process. No paper on standards would be complete without the acknowledgment that science does not necessarily exist (let’s face it science is rarely conclusive) to measure everything. A case in point is the often disputed definition of ‘manuka honey’. In this example science and policy seem to have been at odds for a number of years and while the industry develop their own standards (yes, there are more than one), regulators don’t necessarily recognise the industry devised standards and anecdotal evidence suggests that some governments are even working on their own definition. Meanwhile, manuka honey remains a product vulnerable to fraud and consumers may or may not be duped about the jar of sweet stuff they have purchased. It’s fair to say standard setting uses scientific methods remains a work in progress.

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