OPINION | World Food Safety Day: ‘Low-income nations bear the brunt of foodborne risks’

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  • According to the WHO, each year 600 million people fall ill due to contaminated food, leading to 420 000 deaths 
  • Africa has the highest burden of foodborne diseases caused by unsafe food
  • To address this, a complete paradigm shift around food safety is required

In recognition of the demonstrable effects of foodborne diseases, especially on children under the age of five and those living in lower-income nations, the United Nations (UN) designated 7 June World Food Safety Day (WFSD).

This day is jointly facilitated and observed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to inspire action and preventative measures to detect and manage foodborne risks, such as diarrhoeal diseases, which affect 220 million children each year, leading to 96 000 deaths.

WFSD also focuses on contributing to food security, sustainable development, agriculture, market access, economic growth and healthy populations.

This year’s theme for WSFD is "Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow", which stresses that there are immediate and long-term benefits for the planet, the global economy and human health, driven by the production and consumption of safe food.

But what is 'safe food'?

According to the Australian Institute of Food Safety, safe food entails “handling, preparing and storing food in a way to best reduce the risk of individuals becoming sick from foodborne illnesses”.

The WHO details the staggering global burden caused by foodborne illnesses, estimating that 600 million people (or one in 10 people in the world) fall ill due to contaminated food, leading to 420 000 deaths each year.

In low- and middle-income nations alone, US$110bn (about R1,5tn) is lost in medical and productivity expenses each year. Particularly worrying is that there are 200 foodborne diseases – usually toxic and infectious – ranging from cancer to diarrhoea.

Africa: highest burden 

Africa has the highest burden of foodborne diseases caused by unsafe food, with 135 million infections and 180 000 deaths per year. Consequently, Africa’s disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) – a measure of the overall burden of disease, represented as the number of years lost resulting from early death, disability or ill health – amounts to 15 million lost.

Literature on foodborne diseases notes that low- and middle-income nations bear the brunt of this burden and that the situation is likely to get worse. This is especially true for countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, a 2018 World Bank study found that in low- and middle-income nations, the cost of treating illnesses caused by unsafe food amounted toUS$15 billion (about R205 billion), while productivity losses amounted to US$95,2 billion (about R1.3 trillion) a year. 

However, the same report mentions that other costs resulting from unsafe food such as “…losses of farm and company sales, foregone trade income, the health repercussions of consumer avoidance of perishable yet nutrient-rich foods and the environmental burden of food waste” are harder to quantify.

While the prevalence of foodborne risks is well documented in developed nations, developing nations lack regular reporting on these issues, making it difficult to monitor these trends. In essence, this issue could be far greater than we assume. 

Why Africa bears the brunt

Many reasons are offered as to why Africa bears the brunt of this burden. Generally, the issue is focused on a lack of policy coherence or general neglect of public health. Jaffee and colleagues assert that African diets are dominated by cheap staples such as maize, cereals, rice and cassava, which is driven by a policy intended to ensure the affordability and availability of these foods while lessening the detriment brought about by conditions such as malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.

Presenting at the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade, Grace noted that donor investments in initiatives focused on food safety pale in comparison to investments in other sectors of health.

Moreover, with the increasing need to address food security on the continent, many African nations are undergoing increased agricultural intensification. However, Grace argues that poor regulation of farming practices and the wider use of pesticides could increase the risk of foodborne diseases, which increases the risk of food contamination. 

Foodborne diseases are likely to become more widespread with increases in the consumption of unsafe food and the expanding nature of value chains (the process of food production, from farm to fork). Bisholo, Ghuman, and Haffejee argue that this preventable epidemic is a result of, among others, consuming uninspected food such as meat, fish, and fresh produce.

'Complete paradigm shift needed'

But the poignant reality for Africa, according to Jaffee and Grace, is that there is a dire need for increased investment and a more adaptive and pragmatic domestic food safety policy. But this alone will not solve the problem for the continent. Food regulatory models adopted from developed, high-income nations are ill-suited to an African context, because they are derived from nations that focus on the legal enforcement of food practices through regular inspection and product testing, with the imposition of financial and/or legal penalties.

However, as Jaffee and Grace explain, food systems in Africa are predominated by informal foodways, micro and macro enterprises, and smallholder farming with limited resources for surveillance and inspection; this is compounded by weak legalistic frameworks and court procedures. It seems that for Africa, a complete paradigm shift around food safety is required. 

By Austin Pinkerton, an Andrew W Mellon Scholar in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria

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