By Yergalem Taages Beraki FAO Food Security Officer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Sustaining life and promoting good health requires access not only to adequate but also to safe and nutritious food. Safe and nutritious food has wide-ranging positive impacts on human welfare and economic performance, leading to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those pertaining to ending hunger and poverty, and promoting good health and well-being. The safety of food is also vital to the growth and transformation of agriculture, which is needed to feed the growing population in Africa, in order to spur economic transformation and prosperity, and to promote favourable integration of countries into regional and international markets.
Food can be unsafe due to a number of factors. Harmful bacteria, viruses, natural toxins or chemical substances can make food unsafe and cause disease risks ranging from acute diarrhoea to lifelong conditions, including some cancers.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 600 million people fall ill and 420 000 die every year from eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals. The situation is more prevalent in Africa, where it is estimated that an annual average of 91 million people consume contaminated food that renders them ill, and around 137,000 people die as a result of consuming contaminated food. This reveals the need for more aggressive and strategic interventions to address the problem. According to the World Bank, the economic impact of contaminated food is greater in low-and-middle income countries, which lose an estimated US$ 95 billion in productivity annually.
Food safety can play a critical role in assuring that food stays safe at every stage of the food chain from production to harvest, processing, storage, distribution, all the way to preparation and consumption. Without adequately addressing food safety issues, Africa will not be able to effectively attain the objectives set in African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement as well as in the Declaration on the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the Commitment to Accelerate Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods. Food safety in Africa can be assured through development and implementation of appropriate national and regional food safety regulatory frameworks (guidelines, standards, and laws) as well as enhancement of consumers’ awareness on food safety and quality standards. This, in turn, requires improving the policy and regulatory environment as well as infrastructure (including laboratories) and human and institutional capacities. Making Africa a continent with safe food
can be possible only through integrating food safety policies and strategies into food and nutrition development policies and strategies. There is no food security without food safety.
Putting in place food safety policies and strategies and regulatory mechanisms would have a positive impact on the health and safety of consumers and can reduce market and livelihood disruptions. In addition to improving consumer welfare, adoption and harmonization of food safety regulatory measures and standards can help to harness the potential benefits from AfCFTA agreement in the area of food trade. It is therefore important that countries enact standards and regulations to facilitate movement of safe and quality food commodities in local markets and among trading partners regionally and internationally.
A preferred strategy to effectively address health related problems from unsafe food consumption would be to adopt a comprehensive approach that involves different stakeholders and all participants in the food system. Different actors can build partnership under such an approach, including international organizations (such as FAO and WHO), Regional Economic communities (RECs), national governments, civil societies, the private sector acting along the food value chain, and consumers.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO support global efforts to promote safe food. FAO hosts the Codex Alimentarius Commission which is mandated to develop international food standards in order to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in food trade. FAO specifically assists member countries to prevent, manage and respond to risks along the food production chain.
The FAO sub-regional office for Eastern Africa partners and works with member countries, sub-regional and RECs that include InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), East African Community (EAC), and the African Union Commission (AUC) to improve capacities on food safety and control activities related to agricultural commodities.
There is need to emphasise that consumers have a right to expect the food they purchase and consume to be safe and of acceptable quality. They have a right to voice their opinions about the food control procedures, standards and activities that governments and industries use to ascertain that the food supply has such standards.
Although food safety control is the responsibility of all participants in the food chain and thus is everyone’s business, government needs to take the ultimate responsibility and a leading role in coordinating food safety related issues and in adopting regulatory frameworks and in enforcing their implementation.