This post was written by Lourdes Martinez Romero, Agricultural Economist, Division for Food Safety, Center for Nutrition, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
At the beginning of June, leading up to World Food Safety Day, Agrilinks published a series of posts highlighting the importance of safe, nutritious food systems. Thank you to our partners, colleagues, and friends who participated and contributed to this effort.
As we wrap up this series on Agrilinks, let’s revisit the challenges ahead and some of the concrete commitments and specific actions USAID’s implementing partners are taking to achieve food safety objectives.
Research helps clear the path forward
In recent years, the global food system has experienced rapid changes that represent great opportunities to increase access to safe and nutritious foods. However, enduring threats like aflatoxins remain, with devastating effects, particularly among children. In a recent survey of 250 groundnut farmers throughout the South Peanut Basin of Senegal, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety found that only around 20% of these farmers were aware of aflatoxins and other contaminants. Of that 20%, less than half implement any food safety measures to mitigate this issue. Similarly, The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition found that exposure to mycotoxins through diet is widespread in resource-constrained areas of the world such as Timor-Leste, Nepal, Uganda, and Mozambique. These findings confirm that the way forward on mycotoxin and other food-borne contaminant mitigation is still long and difficult, but our partners are working to make food safety research inclusive and accessible to all, no matter how remote.
Partnering with food businesses is fundamental
We need to invest in science-based food safety practices among small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Investing in food safety practices will also support our efforts to mitigate the impact of other health threats like COVID-19. In addition to SMEs, food processors need support to implement sound measures. The Alliance for Inclusive and Nutritious Food Processing has found that, in many instances, companies have good intentions when it comes to food safety but either lack knowledge of best practices or don’t see the concrete return on investment for improving food safety at their facilities. Working with SMEs and food processors to implement lasting changes and better food safety practices in their daily routines will have a positive ripple effect along food supply chains and markets.
Consumers play an important role in food safety
Knowledge is essential to increasing people’s demand for safe and nutritious foods. Misconceptions about food have always existed, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that myths can have detrimental effects on our efforts to tackle food safety risks and improve nutrition. USAID partners are working with consumers to understand their views about food safety. We’ve learned that the source of food matters and that we need to invest in informal markets because it is where most people in LMICs acquire their food, especially fresh food (70 percent in urban Sub-Saharan Africa). These markets are also important sources of employment, including for women and youth who often sell fresh produce.
The enabling environment for food safety is evolving
The list of enabling environment challenges to advance better food safety practices can be daunting. With our inter-agency partners at USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, we are working to support efforts to advance food safety policies around the world. In October 2019, the African Union (AU) adopted a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) policy framework for Africa. This framework will serve as an instrument to help AU Member States harmonize and strengthen their SPS measures within the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement. In Bangladesh, the Food Safety Authority is working to increase the agency’s human capacity, including recruitment and effective training of newly hired inspectors. Initiatives like these can bring about rapid and sustainable change. The Enabling Environment for Food Security project highlighted the steps taken by African leaders to link increased intra-continental trade with agriculture-led growth and how regulatory frameworks provide an opportunity to integrate food safety considerations.
So where do we go from here, and how do we achieve our objectives?
- Understand that most countries still need food safety management systems. USAID continues to work with partners to understand the full extent of microbial and fungal contamination of different crops. In addition, we are focusing on risk reduction measures to address foodborne disease impact from other contaminants in food supply chains and its effects on health and nutrition. We support the need to increase a government’s capacity to regulate, establish clear guidelines, and provide the essential infrastructure to protect its people, as well as work with the private sector to design systems that address their needs and encourage investments in safe, nutritious food systems.
- Prioritize coordination and collaboration. USAID works through the inter-agency to leverage government-to-government resources and tools for strengthening food safety capacity through country-led approaches. We partner with universities to strengthen the evidence base on the risks of and potential solutions to food safety challenges. We have two new programs — Business Drivers for Food Safety and EatSafe: Evidence and Action towards Safe, Nutritious Food — focusing on small and medium enterprises and consumers, and we continue our partnerships with processors. But the efforts should not end here and we need to include more partners in the private sector to address investment and finance among other issues.
- Actively work with SMEs to support food safety behavior change and solve enabling environment challenges. Micro, small, and medium enterprises in both formal and informal markets confront barriers to accessing affordable finance, training to implement food safety best practices, and value-added markets for their safer products. Small changes among food traders and people working in markets can have a big impact on mitigating food safety risks within food systems. We need to actively facilitate these changes and actively support SMEs.
- Empower consumers to demand safe food from their markets. When consumers ask, businesses usually respond to the call. Consumers, even those with very low income, have the potential and the right to hold both governments and the food industry to account to ensure the availability of safer, nutritious food.
Undoubtedly, we still have a long way to go, but this year’s celebration reminds us that food safety is indeed everyone’s business. We look forward to continuing these important conversations on food safety with all of you. Please keep an eye on Agrilinks for more food safety content!