KENYA – The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a Kenya based international agricultural research institute has called for the need of increased public investment and other policy attention on food safety in developing countries.

Even though food safety is recognised as a major public health concern worldwide, developing countries are way behind in understanding or reinforcing strategies to combat the problem.

Lack of understanding of socioeconomic costs of unsafe food has led to underinvestment in food safety in many countries where cases of food-borne illnesses are eminent.

A new report co-authored by individuals from World Bank, ILRI, University of Guelph and University of Urbana-Champaign highlights food safety as an integral part of economic development and food system modernization.

Prevailing food safety management policies in countries with rapid urbanization and dietary changes are overwhelmed by growing complexity of food safety hazards.

According to the report, low and middle-income countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa account for 41% of the global population but are afflicted with 53% of all foodborne illness, and 75% of related deaths.

Public health burden and economic costs

Investments in food safety are deemed imperative for countries to unleash their full potential to grow their economy inclusively and sustainably.

Food safety is linked in direct and indirect ways to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially those on ending hunger and poverty, and promoting good health and well-being.

Well-functioning markets can provide incentives for farmers and food business operators to supply products that match the safety characteristics consumers demand.

The total productivity loss associated with Food-borne diseases (FBD) is estimated at US$95.2 billion a year and of this, upper-middle-income countries account for US$50.8 billion, or 53% of the total.

Unsafe food undermines food and nutritional security, human development, the broader food economy, and international trade.

Research estimates show that the global burden of FBD was at 600 million illnesses and 420,000 premature deaths in 2010 and Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa led in this trend.

Epidemiological studies show that the people most vulnerable to foodborne disease are the young, old, malnourished, poor, pregnant, and those who are immuno-compromised.

Weak food safety systems

Unfortunately for many developing countries, food safety has received no if not little policy attention and only modest investment in capabilities to manage risks.

This is attributed to weak empirical base for the country-level incidence of foodborne hazards and disease, the economic costs of unsafe food, and the efficacy of food safety interventions.

Fragmentation of food value chains and public institutional mandates, and the absence of effective consumer representation are also among the factors that undermine food safety in most developing countries.

It’s not strange that these countries have to deal with typical crises such as major outbreak of foodborne disease (FBD) causing death, scandals involving deliberate food adulteration, trade bans, or widespread consignment rejections because of noncompliance with standards.

This year alone, Africa has experienced a number of foodborne epidemics as consumers are constantly being exposed to unsafe food and environment.

Even the strongest economy on the continent, South Africa seems to have lost to food-borne and infectious disease after reporting the world’s worst and deadliest outbreak of Listeriosis.

Most of these countries have weak food safety systems in terms of scientific evidence, necessary infrastructure, trained human resources, food safety culture, and enforceable regulations, the report reveals.

For systems that may be in place, their focus could be only business centred, ignoring the need to mitigate food safety risks faced by the poor, whose food-borne disease burden is usually invisible and voiceless.

According to the report, the 34 Sub-Saharan African countries for which assessment data are available, only four are deemed to have adequate capacity for identifying and tracing animals and animal products, and only a similar number can adequately inspect abattoirs.

Chile, India, Kenya, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Vietnam are lauded for having demonstrated that better health and commercial outcomes are possible with the joint involvement of public agencies, businesses, and consumers in food safety.

For many countries, capacities to manage food safety risks for exports appear to be considerably stronger than capacities to protect domestic consumers.

In recent developments, some countries are turning to inconsistent or burdensome border measures which do not ensure safer food.

Common shortcomings in the national food safety systems are among many absence of a comprehensive national food safety policy, focus on hazard rather than risk, presence of many regulations and standards, fragmentation of institutional responsibilities, fragmented systems for laboratory testing.

The report recommends national governments to put in place more effective policy frameworks to govern food safety and ensure better implementation.