“If you give bad food to your stomach, it drums for you to dance.” So goes the African proverb associated with food safety. While it could be said that all 1.1 billion Africans share the implications of this adage, Africa is definitely a continent of contrasts, says Lucia Anelich, PhD, principal of Anelich Consulting, Pretoria, South Africa.
“We have a number of countries relying on subsistence farming and predominantly street food vending to feed their populations,” Dr. Anelich begins. “Other African countries are more developed in varying degrees. Only a few have formalized agriculture, with first world commercial farms and associated support industries such as fertilizer, seed, and crop management companies, and also well-developed manufacturing and retail sectors offering the consumer a wide variety of food products.”
According to Dr. Anelich, South Africa is the most developed country on the African continent, boasting a solid infrastructure, and a well-established formal food production, food processing and manufacturing, and food retail system, with supporting regulations she characterizes as the continent’s most advanced legislation in terms of food safety.
“South Africa has a well-established farming, food manufacturing and retail sector that caters to the domestic, regional, and international markets,” she elaborates. There are multinational companies that operate food production plants in many African countries, but South Africa remains the most developed in this regard.”
The continent of Africa consists of 54 very diverse countries. Covering 11.7 million square miles, the landmass of the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent is larger than the U.S., China, Japan, India, and Europe combined. Of note, Africa boasts what is believed to be the world’s largest combination of density and range of freedom of wild animal populations and diversity, with wild populations of large carnivores, including lions, hyenas and cheetahs; and herbivores such as buffalo, elephants, camels, and giraffes, all ranging freely on primarily open, non-private plains.
Despite its abundant natural resources, including the valuable chemical elements cobalt, platinum, gold, chromium, and uranium, plus diamonds and other minerals, Africa is the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped continent. The causes may include corrupt governments that have often committed serious human rights violations, failed central planning, high levels of illiteracy, lack of access to foreign capital, and frequent tribal and military conflicts ranging from guerrilla warfare to genocide.
Offering hope for greater cooperation and peace among the continent’s countries, the African Union (AU), a 54 member federation consisting of all of Africa’s states except Morocco was formed on June 26, 2001, with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as its headquarters.
Operating under a parliamentary government with legislative, judicial, and executive bodies, the AU is devoted to transforming the African Economic Community, a federated commonwealth, into a state under established international conventions. To that end, the government of the AU consists of all-union (federal), regional, state, and municipal authorities.
African economies are growing, and thus food economy and international trade in food is becoming an integral part of that economic growth, Dr. Anelich says.
To that end, cocoa, coffee, cassavas, yams, mangos, and bananas, which are normally raw produce, are some key export commodities from a number of African countries, according to Courage Kosi Setsoafia Saba, PhD, a lecturer in food microbiology and food safety with the University for Development Studies (UDS) in Tamale, Ghana.
“Countries in Africa are becoming more involved in regional and international trade in order to generate foreign currency,” Dr. Anelich relates. “To that end, a certain level of food safety must be achieved before food trade can occur. Moreover, when countries can supply safe and nutritious food for their domestic markets, they are better able to ensure adequate health and growth of their respective populations so citizens can then contribute in a meaningful way to long-term economic growth of that country.”
All countries in Africa have food standards, Dr. Anelich points out, but they range from very few and rudimentary standards to antiquated standards developed during colonial times to more modern standards reflecting the spirit of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC).
Consequently, projects exist within Regional Economic Communities to harmonize existing food standards, Dr. Anelich relates. “However, many existing food standards are not based on scientific principles as per the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures and the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreements (SPS and TBT),” she says. “Rather, these may be either too lenient, allowing for easier importation of unsafe foods into those countries, which may pose a risk to human health, or the standards may be stricter than Codex standards, which may then constitute a barrier to trade (as per the WTO Agreements) if the stricter standards are not scientifically justifiable. Because of all this, it is clear that further development of science-based food standards is required.”
For this to occur, Dr. Anelich says, capacity building is required in those African countries that do not possess scientific expertise relative to conducting risk assessments and incorporating the results of those risk assessments into appropriate food standards.
Easier said than done. Capacity building will require political will as a first step, followed by policy development and long-term strategies for maintaining that capacity in a particular country.
“This is vital to enable effective participation in relevant regional and international forums such as the Regional Economic Communities and the CAC, respectively,” Dr. Anelich emphasizes. “These developments should, however, go hand in hand with harmonization of food standards at regional and international levels, in order to facilitate trade.”
Most countries in Africa are members of the CAC and WTO. “It therefore follows that Codex Alimentarius standards are the minimum standards that these countries should comply with,” Dr. Anelich continues, “not only for conducting international and regional trade, but also for providing safe and nutritious domestic food. To that end, Africa is in this development trajectory.”
As part of its capacity building program, the AU has set up a number of expert committees that “mirror” certain Codex committees. “These consist of experts within that field that meet once per annum in Nairobi at the AU-Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources offices and develop a response document to the items on the Codex committee agenda,” Dr. Anelich relates. “This document becomes a common African position that is then sent to all the National Codex Contact Points in Africa for those countries to use as a response to that Codex committee. This is certainly bearing fruits, as we are seeing more meaningful participation from African countries in Codex meetings.”
Dr. Anelich, a microbiologist, serves on the AU’s Food Hygiene Expert Committee. Other expert committees include Food Contaminants; Food Additives; Food Labeling; Pesticide Residues; Nutrition and Food for Special Dietary Uses; Residues of Veterinary Drugs in Food, Fish and Fisheries Products; and Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. New proposals for expert committees are Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems; and Methods of Analysis and Sampling.
In addition, says Dr. Anelich, large countries and blocks such as the U.S. and the European Union (EU) are now wishing to have discussions with African delegates the day prior to the Codex meetings to discuss various matters on the agenda. “This level of interest in African positions was not apparent before this program started a few years ago,” she notes.
The AU is currently spearheading an African food safety authority. In early stages of development, the initiative is projected to set safety standards for and monitor the African food supply, much like the European Food Safety Authority does for EU member states. In October 2014, organizers met to investigate developing a Rapid Alert System with the following objectives: 1.) Quick exchange of information about food and feed-related risks to ensure coherent and simultaneous actions by all network members with the view of protecting consumer health from eminent public health risk, and 2.) Contributing to economic development by maintaining consumer confidence in the food system and providing a sound regulatory foundation for trade in food.
What About HACCP?
“Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs are implemented in many countries, particularly amongst multi-national companies operating in African countries,” Dr. Anelich says. “However this is not necessarily the case with small domestic businesses and even larger, less-developed domestic businesses. HACCP-based systems are implemented widely in South Africa and South Africa has the most companies certified to HACCP-based systems by third-party audits from accredited certification bodies than any other country in Africa.”
“HACCP programs are implemented occasionally in the larger manufacturing companies in Ghana, especially if there are problems with their products, but the small-scale producers don’t implement HACCP,” Dr. Saba says. “Companies are monitored by the food regulatory bodies in the country but the enforcement is actually very weak, coupled with inadequate expertise. Food safety auditing is virtually non-existent here.”
Emphasizing that he speaks only for his own country, Dr. Saba says that Ghana’s situation in food safety is likely the norm in many other African countries. For example, implementation and enforcement of food regulations is a big challenge in many African countries, Ghana included, he says.
“The major food safety issues in Africa are foodborne illnesses and inadequate food hygiene practices,” he emphasizes. “Compounding this, some people don’t believe illnesses are caused by unwholesome food.”
There are an estimated 2,000 food safety-related deaths in Africa each day, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. An estimated 700,000 deaths occur in Africa each year due to diarrhea associated with contaminated food and water, according to Dr. Anelich. Reported foodborne disease outbreaks in Africa show that the majority is caused by Salmonella spp., Shigella flexneri, Shigella sonnei, and Shigella dysenteriae; plus Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium perfringens. Various types of parasites are also a significant cause of foodborne illnesses in Africa.
“The presence of illegal levels of food additives such as E110, E102, E104, and E124 in local and imported products, especially in children’s foods and drinks, without any indication about their possible adverse effects written on labels, is a problem in Africa, and there is virtually no equipment here to test food for recommended levels of additives,” Dr. Saba says.
“Inadequate testing laboratories is another quagmire to food regulation in Africa that makes it difficult for regulators to take swift action when problems occur,” he continues. “Many labs have inadequate testing equipment and expertise. As a result it can take months or years for some analyses to be done, and some samples have to be sent out of the countries for analysis. Our local food and drugs authority (FDA) doesn’t have adequate capacity and has to send their samples to Accra, Ghana’s capital city, which is about 373 miles away, and Accra only has one lab serving the country’s FDA.”
Currently managing the UDS faculty laboratory complex, Dr. Saba helps the FDA in his geographic region to test certain locally produced products that are striving to meet the Ghana FDA standards for the certification of products. This testing includes proximate analysis and microbial analyses of locally produced beverages like sobolo, which is made from dried sorrel flowers flavored with sugar and ginger, and also milled cereal/legume products, including Tom Brown (roasted-maize porridge), a traditional weaning food and dawadawa (aka sumbala), a condiment made from néré (Parkia biglobosa) seeds or soybeans that is traditionally sold in balls or patties.
Other weaknesses in food safety and quality initiatives in Africa include low literacy rates, governments not prioritizing food safety, and inadequate funding for continental food safety organizations, Dr. Saba mentions.
Dr. Saba says the African populace is becoming more aware of food safety issues than ever before. “This makes it easier for most consumers here to take on manufacturing companies for their actions or inactions,” he purports.
Aside from the many challenges that face Africa, there are also a number of opportunities, Dr. Anelich emphasizes. “Africa is clearly on a growth trajectory, with an average growth rate of five percent per annum, which it has maintained over the past few years, with some countries showing a higher growth than five percent,” she says. “There are definitely opportunities being grasped to exploit the agricultural and food producing potential of Africa. Thus, there is no better time than the present to ensure that food standards are developed and/or revised in keeping with WTO, SPS, and TBT Agreement principles. This approach will facilitate harmonization of food standards, and consequently food safety standards, at regional and international levels.”
Leake, doing business as Food Safety Ink, is a food safety consultant, auditor, and award-winning journalist based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at [email protected].