Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances can cause more than 200 different diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancers. Worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 600 million people—almost one in 10—become ill after eating contaminated food each year, resulting in 420,000 deaths and the loss of 33 million healthy life years.
Food safety, nutrition, and food security are closely linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition that affects infants, young children, and the elderly and sick in particular, according to WHO reports. “In addition to contributing to nutrition and food security, a safe food supply also supports global, national, and local economies as well as safe and fair trade, while enhancing the diffusion of sustainable development at large,” says Anne Gerardi, senior manager for the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) public–private partnerships and capability building programs at The Consumer Goods Forum in Paris, France. The globalization of food trade, a growing world population, climate change, and rapidly changing food systems all impact food safety.
Several approaches to addressing food safety in developing countries have shown success and promise in recent years. These approaches are often rooted in and center around preventive actions and interventions based on science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, transport, and storage of food, says Tracy Fink, PCQI, director of scientific programs and science and policy initiatives at the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago.
Some of the most effective methods have included capacity-building and training programs, public–private partnerships, and a farm-to-fork approach. Providing training and capacity-building programs for food producers, processors, and regulators is critical to global food safety. These programs equip individuals and organizations with the knowledge and skills needed to implement food safety practices developed in countries with more advanced scientific experience.
Additionally, training helps bridge the food safety knowledge gap in emerging regions and ensures that best practices are understood and followed across the food chain. This training can cover various aspects of food safety, including good hygiene practices, hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) systems implementation, laboratory testing, and risk assessments, Fink says.
Collaboration among government agencies, private sector stakeholders, and non-government organizations (NGOs) is also an effective way to improve food safety, Fink adds. Public–private partnerships can provide resources to promote better practices throughout the nodes of the food supply chain.
A holistic “farm-to-fork” approach considers food safety at each part of the supply chain, from production and processing to distribution and consumption, Fink says. This comprehensive approach also helps identify potential biological, chemical, and physical hazards and risks at various points, allowing for targeted and preventive interventions and risk management.
WHO and FAO Efforts
In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and WHO jointly developed the food control system assessment tool to assist member states in evaluating the effectiveness of national food control systems. The tool’s main objective is to provide a harmonized, objective, and consensual basis to analyze the performance of a national food control system, says Markus Lipp, PhD, senior food safety officer at the food systems and food safety division of the FAO in Rome. Countries can use the tool to identify priority areas of improvement and plan sequential and coordinated activities to reach expected outcomes. The tool is based on the Principles and Guidelines for National Food Control Systems adopted by the Codex Alimentarius, often referred to as Codex, an international food safety standard-setting body established by FAO and WHO.
These organizations also work with member countries to develop capacity-building programs, provide technical assistance, and promote best practices to address global food safety issues, Fink says. Furthermore, they support and promote research and data collection to better understand and mitigate food safety risks worldwide.
As part of their efforts to improve and enhance their food supply’s safety, some countries, including China, Brazil, Thailand, India, and Mexico, have embraced HACCP. Despite these efforts, Fink says that challenges persist and more work needs to be done in implementing and enforcing HACCP in developing countries. One of the main culprits is a lack of communication among various partners, including between regulatory authorities and the private sector. Addressing this communication gap is crucial to overcoming hurdles and ensuring the effective adoption of HACCP principles.
According to Steven Jaffee, PhD, a lecturer in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland in College Park, data and knowledge gaps have contributed to a long legacy of underinvestment in domestic food safety capacity in low- and middle-income countries. Structural issues also represent an impediment. In many such countries, informal food operators and distribution channels still predominate for perishable foods—and likely account for a majority of serious cases of foodborne illness. “Yet, most of this fragmented informal sector is beyond the effective reach of limited government regulatory capacity,” he says. “Furthermore, food systems are experiencing rapid changes in the face of demographic, dietary, and income changes. As food systems transform, food safety problems have become more varied and complex, in many instances overwhelming nascent capacity.”
Contaminants from various sources continue to bring challenges as well. Microbiological pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria are among the most prevalent. Aflatoxins—contaminants produced by certain molds found in soil—affect crops such as grains and nuts. Preventing outbreaks is challenging due to a lack of infrastructure for proper food handling and storage, inadequate food safety laws, or insufficient resources to enforce existing regulations, says Greg Heartman, vice president of product management at TraceGains, an organization based in Westminster, Colo., that connects food brands and suppliers worldwide. Additionally, some regions have limited access to clean water, which exacerbates the problem of microbial contamination.
Chemical contaminants also pose a potential threat, Fink says. Examples include pesticide residues, heavy metals (e.g., lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and nickel), and industrial chemicals. These contaminants can originate from natural sources such as soil, rocks, minerals, and water, and may also result from inadequate local regulation on hazardous chemicals, improper pesticide use, and pollution.
Furthermore, biological toxins represent another concern. Fink notes that certain naturally occurring toxins, such as cyanogenic glycosides in cassava and toxic alkaloids in certain wild plants, can contaminate foods if they aren’t properly processed or prepared.
Tackling Food Safety Risks
Dr. Jaffee believes that a different approach is needed to better tackle food safety risks in the informal sector. This would entail:
- Local action, centrally guided. The bulk of interventions, both regulatory and facilitative, needs to come at the municipal level, and the drive for safer food in the informal sector should be embedded in strategies for healthy, sustainable, and resilient cities. National agencies would still have important roles such as mobilizing resources and providing guidelines and technical backstopping.
- Multi-sectoral action. Standalone food safety interventions may not be the best option. Rather, improving the safety of food in the informal sector can be better achieved and better resourced when bundled with interventions to improve nutrition, increase access to potable water and improved sanitation, improve environmental management, and upgrade urban infrastructure.
- Rebalancing the use of sticks and carrots. Strict enforcement of regulatory provisions is unlikely to be effective vis-à-vis most informal sector food operators. Rather, gradual and continuous enhancements in practices and/or facilities should be sought. Whenever feasible, greater effort should go into engaging and enabling informal market operators—that is, finding ways to strengthen both their incentives and their capacity to carry out their food businesses in ways that are much more likely to yield safe food. It would be beneficial for cities or local branches of ministries to employ as many food hygiene/food business advisors as they do regulatory inspectors.
Opportunities for Improvement
GFSI maintains that working in silos, which is the status quo for a vast majority of organizations, remains a predominant obstacle to resolving food safety issues. Furthermore, intergovernmental organizations remain reluctant to partner with the private sector and are failing to see the private sector and organizations convening the private sector, like GFSI, as a solution. Instead, they perceive it as an obstacle, Gerardi says.
Developing a favorable ecosystem for safer food by focusing on infrastructure, people, and supply chains that will enhance food safety capabilities is a key to solving those issues. Developing robust, transparent, and delivery-oriented regulatory and national food control systems focused on policy and enforcement is also paramount and a key component of those capabilities, Gerardi adds.
Along these lines, Heartman says that improvements should come about through a combination of government initiatives, international aid, and private sector solutions. “Governments can enact and enforce stronger food safety legislation, while international organizations can provide the necessary technical and financial support,” he says. “Countries can gain better governance by negotiating supportive solution deals with global providers. Public–private sector partnerships can introduce innovative software solutions and technologies that help embed food safety into the food supply chain while supporting and solving the global problems that buyers and suppliers face.”
Fink agrees. “Governments, international organizations, academia, non-government organizations, public–private partners, and food science community have to work together to protect public health, enhance food security and food safety, and facilitate economic development,” she says. Furthermore, encouraging individuals and organizations that are independent of the government and businesses and operate to pursue various social, cultural, political, environmental, and humanitarian goals is crucial in shaping and influencing public policy around food safety.
Today, focus has been put on proactively preventing problems rather than reactive remediation once undesirable outcomes have been observed. “This has been instituted in many areas for decades and is the current dogma of human health,” says Dr. Lipp.
Similarly, a systems approach to food safety is proactive, aimed at preventing food safety problems from occurring in the first place. Once food is rendered unsafe, it typically can’t be reused and must be discarded. “Such a reactive approach is unsustainable economically as well as from an environmental perspective,” he adds.
Some developing nations are beginning to adopt a more proactive approach to food safety. Initiatives such as the African Food Safety Network promote sharing of information and best practices. “Shifting from reactive to proactive quality controls and food safety management in developing countries requires capitalizing on software while changing mindsets through education,” Heartman says. “The key is building a culture of food safety at all levels of the supply chain, particularly between buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers.”
The capacities and capabilities required to engage in a proactive, preventative food safety approach are higher than those that are focused on a reactive approach, and investments are urgently needed to confer the knowledge needed to engage in this approach, by proactively designing the agrifood system for the delivery of safe food, Dr. Lipp says.
In November 2023, the New GFSI GMaP toolkit was launched. The program allows food business operators (FBOs) easy access to a suite of tools to enable self-assessment of food safety proficiencies based on Codex.
Focused on primary production and manufacturing activities, the free toolkit includes a food safety checklist and associated protocols, along with training and competency frameworks, which are intended to support the multiple ways that FBOs can signify their overall food safety capabilities to enhance their ability to trade internationally or domestically.
Some months earlier, in April 2023, GFSI and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to improve food safety and sustainable food systems in Africa. This MOU is an integral part of GFSI’s new capability strategy approach and contributes to the U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy through Feed the Future, a whole-of-government platform that works to end hunger and malnutrition and build sustainable, resilient food systems, Gerardi says.
Under the signed MOU, USAID and GFSI will support small and medium food businesses in Africa to improve their capabilities via more robust food safety management systems by connecting them to technical, educational, and financial resources.
Potential businesses will be identified to participate in a pilot phase of GFSI’s new capability building framework, with a particular focus businesses owned by women, Gerardi says. The framework will focus on facilitating regulatory compliance, information sharing, and market access. Additionally, the partnership will support new research on food safety value chains and provide guidance on measuring the framework’s contributions to Sustainable Development Goals linked to food safety.