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International food safety committee draws expertise from Virginia Tech professor

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 19 - February 5, 1998

Virginia Tech Professor Merle Pierson will represent a world-wide organization of food scientists on a committee drawing up global food-safety standards.
Pierson, professor of food science and technology, is recognized as an international expert on Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points, or HACCP. That is a system for designing safeguards in the processing of foods to eliminate food-borne pathogens.
He has been appointed chairman of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Codex Alimentarius committee. Codex is an international effort to develop world-wide standards and principles for food quality and safety. More than 150 countries participate in the commission's deliberations. The commission was established in 1962 to implement the food-standards program of the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
In addition to chairing IFT's Codex committee, Pierson is the organization's delegate to the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene. The meetings of the commission and its committees are limited to member governments and certain non-governmental organizations designated by the commission.
"IFT is recognized as a non-governmental organization by the Codex Commission," Pierson said. "We provide technical input and participate in developing standards."
While the Codex effort is intended to improve the safety and quality of the world's food supply, its decisions also have an impact on international trade.
"The standards are recognized by the World Trade Organization," Pierson said. "It becomes the terms of reference in cases of trade disputes."
Pierson said in his role as chair of the IFT's Codex Committee, he has been involved in the scientific and political processes of recent extensive revisions to HAACP principles.
The principles were finalized last June, and they "will serve as the basis for establishing HAACP systems world-wide," he said. "The document will have a major impact on food safety, providing principles for the management of food safety."
That, he said, will allow national governments to harmonize their standards with the world-wide standards. In theory, that should eliminate arbitrary technical barriers to trade one government may attempt to use to protect domestic producers. In practice, it will provide a standard against which trade disputes can be judged.
IFT, he said, is ideally suited to a role in Codex Alimentarius deliberations because of the wealth of scientific expertise in the 26,000-member scientific society. The focus of IFT is on food hygiene, food processing, nutrition, labeling, and numerous other areas related to food safety and quality.
Pierson comes to his duties with Codex with a broad range of experience with national and international food-safety issues.
He coordinated the rewriting of HAACP standards for the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Food, a job that required political and bureaucratic finesse as well as scientific rigor. He has given talks on HAACP throughout the world, and he has assisted foreign governments with verification and validation of HAACP systems.
The international involvement, in turn, helps him in the classroom.
"I can come back from overseas after working with governments and companies and relate to students the real-world situation," he said. "It gives them a global perspective and they gain an appreciation of the important practical application of what they are learning."