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Volume 1, Issue 3
February 2009

Local to Global to Local: The Food Safety Knowledge Network

Safe, Affordable Food is a Worldwide Concern

Over the past decades, the food procurement system has become truly globalized, reaching into every corner of the world to ensure consumers an uninterrupted and affordable supply of food. However, recent incidences of food safety problems have undermined consumers' confidence in the integrity of the system.

Michigan State University is part of an ambitious new collaborative enterprise that aims to improve and standardize food safety certification, auditing, and governance worldwide. The Food Safety Knowledge Network was officially launched during the international Global Food Safety Initiative conference February 4-6, 2009 in Barcelona, Spain.

Economic impacts can be devastating when food-borne illness outbreaks occur. Lasting damage to reputation, wasted time and effort, and loss of clients (and therefore sales), are among the immediate and prolonged results of food safety crises for many in the food supply chain, from growers to processors to corporations to consumers. In 2008 the World Bank estimated a $5.6 billion cost to the economy, with 76 million cases per year in the U.S. alone.

The Food Safety Knowledge Network will create a joint research and teaching program to build global trade capacity in food standards and safety, entrepreneurship, and rural sustainability. In addition to MSU, partners include the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the CIES Food Business Forum (an industry association representing approximately 400 of the world's largest food companies), and various other stakeholders from around the world.

Completing the information loop

Dr. Hamish Gow is associate professor of agricultural, food, and resource economics at MSU and director of Partnership for Food Industry Development – Fruits and Vegetables (PFID-F&V). PFID-F&V is the local site of a USAID initiative and a partner in the Food Safety Knowledge Network.

"We've been good at improving economic impact in the field. What's lacking is how knowledge from the field comes back to the university and into global practice—which is often the case with international projects," he said. "We are missing the link back to the university for research, evaluation and best practices. The Food Safety Knowledge Network identifies or creates those effective processes."

"We had to find a space in the food production and delivery process to engage. We decided on food safety because it's a non-competitive common space. It affects everybody. We're all motivated to work on it together. But the model could be applied to horticulture, dairy production, or other issues beyond food safety as well," Gow said.

Individual accountability is key

Gow believes that when a disaster occurs, like the recent melamine contamination in China, part of the problem lies with individual accountability. "Today we can certify the products, processes, and the firm," he said. "Still, the process is at risk from catastrophic failure if individuals managing and operating the system do not have the appropriate incentives to ensure contamination does not occur, either accidentally or fraudulently. How to bridge this incentive gap is the question. It needs standards, economic incentives, and sanctions." He uses accounting principles as an example of how it should work. "When a CPA signs off on an audit, both the firm and its individuals are accountable. That individual accountability is the key."

The Food Safety Knowledge Network program is thoughtfully designed to create an industry-wide accountability framework. Its components include a global governing body to be owned by all stakeholders; a common professional qualification, examination, and training program; a transparent, industry-defined competency structure; an open marketplace of accredited education and training providers; and a technology-based community of practice that uses social networking to disseminate open educational resources and the latest research.

MSU Global is also a collaborative partner with the Network, bringing a comprehensive approach for instructional design and open educational resource delivery.

Michigan State University leadership

MSU is positioned to be a key player as the project develops. "We will most likely drive the research, be the information hub and the premier training and examination provider," said Gow, who is optimistic about the Network's chance for success. "It is industry driven," he said. "It's global. But it's bottom up. The value is in customizing global standards for specific markets."

Visit the Global Food Safety Initiative Web site for more information.

  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of the Food Safety Knowlege Network