Photo credit: Michael Coghlan

Unsafe food poses a significant threat to human health and well-being and can hamper agricultural transformation, market integration, and economic development. Populations in low- and middle-income countries are often hardest hit by the effects of unsafe food, with countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa south of the Sahara accounting for 53 percent of all foodborne illnesses and 75 percent of related deaths. According to the World Health Organization, the illness, disability, and premature deaths resulting from unsafe foods led to productivity losses of about USD 95 billion in 2016 in low- and middle-income countries.

Despite the prevalence of unsafe food and related problems, however, policymakers in these countries have generally paid little attention to and made little investment in the addressing the issue of food safety. In order to encourage further improvements in food safety, a new report from the World Bank provides examples of effective food safety management practices from around the world. The report also includes a strong call to action, emphasizing the need for the creation of cohesive and well-funded domestic food safety management systems and public-private partnerships (including public agencies, businesses, and consumers) in low- and middle-income countries.

According to the report, food safety results from the actions or inactions of a wide variety of stakeholders, including farmers, food handlers and distributors, food manufacturers, food service operators, consumer, regulators, scientists, educators, and the media. The behavior of these stakeholders is often shaped by their awareness of food safety hazards and their capacity (technical or financial) to apply proper food safety practices, as well as by rules and incentives in place to encourage such practices.

In developing countries, food safety has been hampered by two main groups of factors. First, weak empirical knowledge (i.e., a lack of good quality data) regarding the country-level incidence of foodborne diseases, the economic costs of unsafe food, and the efficacy of domestic food safety interventions means that policymakers and researchers often do not know the extent of the problem in their country. Second, institutional challenges, such as fragmented food value chains and policies, have made it difficult to establish comprehensive, cohesive programs to address food safety issues across the board.

The report uses the term “food safety life cycle” to describe how the burden of unsafe food changes alongside economic development. At the traditional stage of the food safety life cycle (characterized by consumption of starchy staple foods and policies focused on food availability and affordability), food production practices are fairly effective at controlling food-borne hazards, the report says; most foodborne illness at this stage stems from poor hygiene practices and limited access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities. Therefore, at this stage, demand and incentives for food safety tend to be low.

As food systems modernize and incomes increase, however, countries reach the transitional stage of the food life cycle. At this stage, food safety hazards become broader, as consumers’ dietary preferences shift rapidly and populations become more urbanized. At this stage, most foodborne hazards stem from changes in the production and consumption practices of fresh foods, such as meat products and fruits and vegetables. In addition, food imports, particularly of perishable fresh products, tend to increase at this stage, opening consumers up to new foodborne hazards. Governmental regulatory bodies and systems, as well as emerging private sector actors, can become overwhelmed in this scenario of rapidly increasing and changing food safety risks, and food safety concerns tend to increase faster than the ability of existing tools to address those challenges.

As countries’ food systems reach the modernizing stage of the food safety life cycle, agri-food value chains often undergo significant restructuring. Producers, processors, and distributors tend to become more formalized, and retail sectors become modernized, even in rural areas. While foodborne hazards still exist at this stage, more effective monitoring and regulatory systems make it easier to establish and enforce minimum food safety standards in both the public and the private sector. As a result, consumer trust in the ability of systems to deliver safe food increases.

Often, governments attempt to reach these later life cycle stages through strict regulations enforced through the inspection of food facilities and products and the penalization of failures to meet certain standards. However, this system may not be effective in low- and middle-income countries, where food systems are dominated by smallholder farmers, micro and small enterprises, and informal food channels. To better help these countries move through the food safety life cycle and achieve improved food safety outcomes, the report recommends the establishment of a more shared management model. Under such a model, governments would work to incentivize and facilitate the safe production, processing, and distribution of foods through the establishment of minimum food safety standards; in turn, food businesses would retain a certain degree of flexibility in attaining these standards and would be able to draw on government support and resources to comply with standards. In this way, various stakeholders would be able to better coordinate and work together.

In addition, investments need to focus not just on food safety interventions but also on environmental interventions, such as reducing contamination of soil and water supplies. The report also calls for a shift to a more proactive focus on identifying and reducing or avoiding potential future food safety risks; in this way, policymakers will be able to not only respond to food safety incidents but actually prevent such incidents.

By: Sara Gustafson

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