Photo Credit: Flickr: IITA

As the global food system becomes more integrated, urban populations grow, and incomes continue to rise around the world, the issue of food safety is drawing greater and greater attention, according to a new brief from the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

More integrated markets mean more market actors involved in bringing food from farm to table and more stages along the agricultural value chain where contamination of food can occur. As a result, issues of sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) have started to play a larger role in international trade negotiations and agreements. Despite this increased attention, however, most producers and consumers in most low- and middle-income countries do not have the capacity to ensure the safety and quality of their food. This can have a significant detrimental effect on human health through illness, lowered nutritional levels, and even death. In addition, food safety concerns and varying food safety and quality standards in importing countries can reduce trade and lower producers’ incomes, further increasing poverty in developing regions.

To truly meet the challenges posed by food safety in this new global context, the brief highlights the need for integrated regional and continental standards and a “whole value chain” approach that identifies and addresses risks from production through consumption.

On the production side, the brief provides examples of several crop management techniques that can reduce the presence of aflatoxin contamination at the farm level; these include properly timing harvests, rotating crops, using the proper mixtures and levels of fertilizers, and using biological control methods to suppress the growth of toxin-producing fungi. All of these techniques can reduce stress on planted crops and make them more resilient to aflatoxin contamination. In addition, improved drying and storage strategies can reduce aflatoxin contamination post-harvest.

To address risks post-harvest, the brief recommends increased support for and information regarding proper harvest and storage techniques, including the use of bins and sacks. Governments and international organizations should also increase research into understanding the extent of contaminants like aflatoxin and should step up community outreach and education efforts to prevent and mitigate such hazards. Finally, governments should also establish protocols to ensure that food rejected by exporters due to high contamination levels or other safety concerns do not end up on the tables of poor domestic consumers.

As food moves from the farm to the market in developed countries, the formal food sector (which often has refrigeration capacity, effective food storage measures, and regulation of food safety standards) can help protect food supplies and prevent contamination. In developing countries, however, a majority of food and agricultural trade occurs through informal markets composed of individual traders or trade associations responsible for collecting commodities from producers, selling in spot markets, and providing retail services for fresh, semi-processed, and highly-processed food products. These actors often lack formal food safety training and are not aware of food safety regulations, making contamination of food supplies at this stage more likely in developing markets.

The development of low-cost testing methods and food safety training for rural traders and vendors can improve food safety in informal food markets; for example, the brief highlights government programs in Vietnam and Kenya that have provided food safety and hygiene training for street food vendors and dairy farmers, respectively. The brief also recommends increased investment in road infrastructure, regional warehousing and storage facilities, and improved market information systems to enhance the timeliness with which perishable food products like fruits and vegetables reach markets. Creating incentives like certification schemes can also help increase the formalization of the food sector and improve food safety and quality management.

Finally, consumer demand can play an important part in improving food safety techniques and standards. According to the brief, studies have found that consumers in low- and middle-income countries have expressed a willingness to pay more for higher quality, safer food; however, these consumers often do not have effective ways to determine whether food is safe, as credible third-party inspection and certification is lacking in developing countries. In addition, many consumers do not have knowledge regarding proper safe food handling practices, such as how to wash, store, or cook food prepared in the home.

At the consumer level, increased awareness campaigns regarding the importance of food safety and proper food handling and storage techniques can be a low-cost way for governments and donors to improve food safety outcomes in poor communities. In addition, governments should promote and support greater dietary diversity in order to both reduce exposure to certain contaminants (such as aflatoxin, found mainly in staple crops like maize) and increase households’ nutrition outcomes.

The brief was recently presented at a roundtable meeting, organized jointly by the African Unions’ Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) and the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition; read full coverage of the event here.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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