Worldwide, climate change is already affecting directly and indirectly the agricultural productivity and ecology of some organisms because of changing patterns in crop production, livestock intensification, changing rainfall patterns, increased drought and flooding, and the geographical redistribution of pests and diseases, as well as altering the transport pathways of chemical contaminants.

Consequently, climate change is expected to aggravate feed and food safety problems during all phases of food production and supply. M.C.Tirado, R.  Clarke, L.A.Jaykus, A.McQuatters-Gollop, J.M.Frank stated in their research entitled “Climate change and food safety: A review” published in Food Research International (Vol. 43, Issue 7):

Climate change and variability may have an impact on the occurrence of food safety hazards at various stages of the food chain, from primary production through to consumption. There are multiple pathways through which climate related factors may impact food safety including: changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, ocean warming and acidification, and changes in contaminants’ transport pathways among others. Climate change may also affect socio-economic aspects related to food systems such as agriculture, animal production, global trade, demographics and human behavior which all influence food safety.”

As human health inescapably relates to the consumption of safe and sufficient quantity of foods, climate change is expected to have considerable impacts on human health as a consequence of serious food contamination and food scarcity. Food hazards, including germs and chemical contaminants, can enter the food supply at any point from farm to table. Most of these hazards cannot be detected in food when it is purchased or consumed. In addition, consumption of insufficient amount of food due to food scarcity may lead to malnutrition and several foodborne diseases. Therefore, climate change by way of temperature increases, changing patterns in crop production, changes in rainfall patterns, toxic contaminations, food scarcity, increased drought and flooding etc. is resulting in worldwide increased water- and food-borne diseases and malnutrition. M. Herrera, R. Anadón, Shahzad Zafar Iqbal, J. D. Bailly, Agustin Ariño stated in their research entitled  “Climate Change and Food Safety” published in Selamat J., Iqbal S. (eds) Food Safety. Springer, Cham (2016):

Temperature increases and changes in rainfall patterns will have an impact on the persistence and patterns of occurrence of bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, and harmful algae and the patterns of their corresponding foodborne diseases and the risk of toxic contamination. Chemical residues of pesticides and veterinary medicines in plant and animal products will be affected by changes in pest pressure.”

Therefore, incidences of water- and food-borne diseases are increasing globally. Water- and food-borne diseases are the result of ingestion of foodstuffs or water contaminated with microorganisms or chemicals, or diseases caused by malnutrition. These diseases encompass abroad spectrum of illnesses causing morbidity and mortality worldwide and their real overall health impact on the world population is yet unknown. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (“FAO”) stated in its research in 2008 entitled “Climate Change:  Implications for Food Safety”:

Evidence of the impact of climate change on the transmission of food and waterborne diseases comes from a number of sources, e.g. the seasonality of foodborne and diarrhoeal disease, changes in disease patterns that occur as a consequence of temperature, and   associations between increased incidence of food and waterborne illness and severe weather events.”

Following the recurrence of serious events of food contamination and scarcity across the globe, food safety has become a matter of ever increasing international concern and the World Health Organization has defined foodborne diseases as a global public health challenge. Protecting global health from foodborne hazards is a compelling duty and a primary interest of both States and non-State actors; it calls for enhanced proactive cooperation between national and international institutions. Moving from the consideration that food safety issues and the enhancement of health security are of growing international concern, it is interesting to inquire whether the international community is provided with the appropriate legal instruments to face foodborne hazards globally. Unfortunately, the present state of international law on food safety regulation and governance is still unsatisfactory and reforms are desirable in many respects.

The “Right to Safe and Sufficient Food” in International Law

For the reasons stated above, international food safety is perceived as a global challenge. In the wake of a trend towards more efficient food safety policies, the 2007 Beijing Declaration on Food Safety gives voice to the global community’s concern that a comprehensive and integrated approach be adopted, prompting all stakeholders to take cooperative and concerted actions and strengthening links between the different sectors involved. The Declaration, in fact, recognizes that “integrated food safety systems are best suited to address potential risks across the entire food-chain from production to consumption” and that “oversight of food safety is an essential public health function that protects consumers from health risks”. In this perspective, it mainly urges States to develop transparent regulation to guarantee safety standards; to ensure adequate and effective enforcement of food safety legislation using risk-based methods; to establish procedures, including tracing and recall systems in conjunction with industry; to rapidly identify, investigate and control food safety incidents and to alert the World Health Organization (WHO) of those events falling under the revised international health regulations. In short, the Declaration expresses the need to understand food safety as both a national and an international responsibility.

Although emphasis is increasingly being placed on the concept of food safety, legal literature has seldom expanded on the status of a “human right to safe food” in international law. The right to safe food in human rights law is encompassed by both the right to health and the right to food. It is so closely interrelated with these fundamental human rights – being at the same time one of their integral components and an element upon which their realization is dependent.

Article 25, paragraph 1, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) affirms that “[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”, while article 12, paragraph 1, of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights  (“ICESCR”) enunciates the right to health as “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.  In its General Comment No. 14 on the domestic implementation of article 12 of ICESCR, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“the Committee”) interprets the right to health, as defined in article 12.1, as “an inclusive right extending not only to timely and appropriate health care but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as access to safe and potable water and … [a]n adequate supply of safe food” (Comment No. 14, para. 11). As far as legal obligations are concerned, the Committee makes it clear that States Parties are under the obligation to adopt domestic laws aimed to ensure “the underlying determinants of health, such as nutritiously safe food and potable drinking water” (Comment No. 14, para. 36) and to provide for implementation of such legislation.

Moreover, the Committee reiterates the view expressed in General Comment No. 12 that guaranteeing “access to the minimum essential food which is nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure freedom from hunger to everyone” is one of the core obligations incumbent upon States Parties to grant satisfaction of minimum essential levels of the right to health. In this context, obligations of immediate effect would encompass the duty to guarantee that all individuals under the jurisdiction of the State have equal access to safe and nutritious food; the duty to enact food safety and consumer protection legislation, including accountability measures; the duty to take all necessary steps to implement international regulations and standards.

In its general comment on the right to adequate food, the Committee underlines that “the right … is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfillment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights” (Comment No. 12, para. 4). While recognizing that the right to adequate food is crucial for the enjoyment of all rights, the Committee considers that the core content of this right implies “the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances” (Comment No. 12, para. 4).

Moreover, the relevance of food safety to the realization of the right to food both at national and international level is further emphasized by the Committee when it stresses that domestic policies of implementation of article 11 of ICESCR “should address critical issues and measures in regard to all aspects of the food system, including the production, processing, distribution, marketing and consumption of safe food” (Comment No. 12, para. 10), and that States and international organizations have a joint and individual responsibility to ensure that “products included in international food trade or aid programs … be safe” (Comment No. 12, para. 10).

Within the United Nations, the General Assembly has long adopted the same approach as the Committee, in resolution 63/187 of 18 December 2008 on the right to food the Assembly “reaffirms the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”. The Human Rights Council has repeated the same formula in its Resolution No. 7/14 on the right to food of 27 March 2008, the first adopted by the Council so far.

In different contexts, several international declarations and other soft law instruments have reaffirmed the individual right to adequate and safe food. The World Declaration on Nutrition, adopted by the FAO International Conference on Nutrition in December 1992, asserts that “access to nutritionally adequate and safe food is a right of each individual” (para. 1); the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security includes the States’ commitment to “implement policies aimed at eradicating poverty and inequality and improving physical and economic access by all, at all times, to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe food and its effective utilization [World Food Summit Plan of Action, para. 21 (b)]” and the Declaration adopted at the FAO World Food Summit: five years later in June 2002 confirms “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food” (preamble).

From this legal framework it can be inferred that in the human rights perspective it is generally recognized that every individual is entitled to food that is safe and of good quality, since safe food is functional to achieving freedom from hunger and enjoyment of the best attainable state of health; hence it is crucial for protecting life and human dignity. Clarifying whether this entitlement shapes an autonomous right, separate and distinguishable from the rights to adequate food and to health, and whether it can be considered a fundamental human right, will probably be the subject of further insights by future legal scholarship. It is worth considering, however, that food safety has been already defined “an inalienable right of each individual” (WHO Global Strategy for Food Safety: Safer Food for Better Health).

The Need to Move Forward

It is generally acknowledged that due to their transboundary dimension and their potential widespread impact on human health, climate change and food safety challenges demand close international cooperation and global governance. Following in the wake of a clear trend in international law and practice, we are now witnessing the emergence of a general principle on food safety, underpinned by the progressive affirmation of a human right to safe food, which requires that international standards and guidelines be voluntary complied with, legal obligations be fulfilled in good faith and all stakeholders at different levels play their proactive role in enhancing the international community’s preparedness and capacity of response to food safety threats.

It is in fact common view that protecting world health from foodborne illnesses and similar hazards is to be seen as a compelling duty and a primary interest of both States and non-State actors. While food safety governance at the global level calls for multi-sectoral approaches and multi-level cooperation to minimize the effects of food safety related public health events, international law can still count on a limited set of legal instruments.

In fact, in the wake of climate change, the present state of international law on food safety regulation has faults and drawbacks, as authoritatively confirmed by Professor Francis Snyder:

“Food supply insecurity and unsafe food are tolerated, encouraged or even positively promoted by many aspects of current international law. Serious reform is essential if we want to create an international law for (and not just ‘of’) adequate food”.

Therefore, it is to be hoped that the joint efforts of the major international organizations involved at both the universal and the regional level (WHO, FAO, WTO) – which point towards the prospective enhancement of the degree of cooperation among international actors, State authorities and private stakeholders – will succeed in shaping an improved legal framework for food safety governance, which may benefit from the commitment of both international and national institutions. In such an evolving and interdependent scenario, national initiatives concerning targeted domestic legislation can indeed be welcomed as positive steps forward whenever they substantially contribute to realizing the right to safe and adequate food, introduce accountability measures, and strengthen foodborne disease monitoring and surveillance systems.

By focusing only on international law norms and obligations, this essay aims to offer a contribution to the current debate on food safety, with the awareness that it represents only a starting point for further analysis and more in-depth reflections on the innovations and developments needed in food safety regulation to achieve the compelling objective of protecting world health.

Mahmudul Hasan

Mahmudul Hasasn is Lecturer of Law at the University of Development Alternative (UODA), Bangladesh. Comments are welcome to be sent directly at mahmudul.law[at]gmail.com

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