Accredia / Food safety / Accredited laboratory tests for food safety: the estimate of social benefits in Italy

Accredited laboratory tests for food safety: the estimate of social benefits in Italy

20 September 2020

Over the years, economic development ratio is changed several times. In this sense, new awareness of the scarcity of resources used as inputs in production processes and energy consumption had a strong influence.

In 2015, more than 150 world leaders met at the United Nations headquarters in New York and approved the Global Agenda for Sustainable Development and the new global goals: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Development Goals are built on a set of 170 indicators grouped into 17 categories.

Achieving the targets is a complex task that requires integrated intervention with policies capable of coordinating environmental, economic and social effects. The Quality Infrastructure (QI), defined as a set of tools necessary to accompany a sustainable growth path, has supported governments in the development of economic and social policies. Among the elements of the QI, a credible system for verifying the characteristics of the products is necessary to instill confidence in consumers and solve the market failure resulting from the misalignment of information sets between producers and consumers. The effect on consumer’s utility and, ultimately, on the development of markets is particularly important for all those goods that have more to do with the health and well-being of those who consume them.

The strengthening of control systems in the food supply chain is of central importance among the essential elements for achieving the objectives of social equity. It is no coincidence that the second of the 17 SDGs “Defeating hunger” puts food security at the top of the targets that countries must meet by 2030. Guaranteeing food security in a highly globalized world in which the world population and the variety of foods that consumers have access to is growing, presents increasingly difficult challenges for governments.

Long and complex food chains require rigorous control and guarantee activities. In this context, the activities of accredited laboratories make it possible to keep human health risks under control.

In Europe, food safety policy aims to protect consumers while at the same time ensuring the smooth functioning of the single market.

The EU has introduced rules to ensure food hygiene, animal health and welfare, plant health and the control of contamination from external substances, such as pesticides. Strict controls are carried out at each step, and third countries producers must adapt to them.

In Europe, the official control of food and beverages provides for complete controls on the product, through inspections, sampling and laboratory analysis, inspections and interviews with personnel, as well as controls on the application of HACCP programs for the identification of the critical points in the production chain.

In Italy, the analysis on food products are entrusted to the public laboratories of the Official Control (Experimental Zooprophylactic Institutes, Multizonal Prevention and Regional Agencies for the Protection of the Environment) and the results of the surveillance and control activities are processed by the Ministry of Health and transmitted annually to the Parliament.

With reference to self-control, which every food manufacturing company must implement, the activity of the accredited analysis laboratories according to the UNI CEI EN ISO/IEC 17025 standard is crucial. These laboratories must be registered in special regional lists that are periodically updated and accessible by food companies.

The rigor in the control procedures raises the bar for the European consumer protection level.

Last July Accredia presented a rigorous research conducted by Prometeia trying to estimate the social benefits deriving from this control system (, pp. 60 – 65). The starting point was the cost estimates attributable to foodborne diseases. Many studies  have tried to quantify the effects of these types of illnesses on human health: starting from the data of the cases (real or estimated) of adverse events due to a single pathogenic agent (Salmonella, Campylobacter, etc.) and according to their severity of their impact on health, homogeneous indicators were created based on DALYs (disability adjusted life years): years of life lost owing to contraction of these diseases. Figure 1 shows the years of life lost for every 100,000 people due to foodborne diseases  in Europe and elsewhere.

Figure 1 – DALYs per 100,000 people due to foodborne diseases -2017

Source: Global Health Data exchange

Owing to more advanced social, environmental and economic levels of development, the incidence in the West is much lower than in Asia and especially Africa. A comparison of the European countries characterized by similar life standards is quite mixed, with Italy among the least affected countries.

In order to examine these differences and to overcome the possible distortions caused by under-declaration, an econometric panel model was created for 15 EU States covering the years 2001 to 2017, comparing the DALYs from foodborne diseases with some economic and normative factors. Despite the fact that it’s a complex phenomenon the results offer some interesting statistical relations which explain many of the performance differences among the various countries. The consequences of outbreaks of foodborne diseases are influenced positively by the level of pro capita food consumption (greater consumption corresponds to more transmission) and negatively by consumption habits oriented more toward fruit and vegetables. Public spending in the agricultural sector and, to a greater extent, the number of workers involved in the food safety control system, reduce the risk of adverse events.

The above relationship made it possible to simulate what would happen if the available resources were to fall drastically (by over 90%). In the case of Italy, which has the highest percentage of dedicated personnel per population, the absence of an enforcement system, all other conditions being equal, could result in a fourfold rise in DALYs – from 37 to 150. This difference is used as a yardstick for measuring the contribution which regulations bring to society in terms of greater food safety. Following the principles set out in the literature it is possible to give an economic value to a DALY as a synthesis of the social cost created by one year of life lost. This enabled the quantification of the costs of foodborne diseases in Italy to be around 1.1 billion euro, whilst the costs which are avoided and therefore the benefits to society of a food safety system are estimated to be in the region of 3.25 billion euro per year – between 2 and 4 billion depending on how the costs to society of DALYs are calculated. (Figure 2).

As it is not always possible to identify precisely the effect of each component of the system on this result, the contribution in terms of social benefits attributable to the Quality Infrastructure has been estimated proportionally with the respective costs, considering both the private and the public components. The total social benefits (reduction of social costs) attributable to TIC activities (including accredited state laboratories) amount to over 400 million euro per year, to which private benefits obtained by the performance of the agrifood chain are added. The analysis highlights how both private and public TIC activities work for the management and protection of food safety with positive benefits for society.

Figure 2 – Annual overall and net benefits attributable to food safety protection measures (millions of €)

Source: Global Health Data exchange