Consumer expectations and demands have a role to play in improving food safety in Africa, according to speakers at an event in Brussels this week.

The briefing in the Belgian city was organized by the ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, with the European Commission (DG DEVCO and DG SANTE), the ACP Secretariat, CONCORD and the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP).

The World Health Organization’s Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) estimates that 420,000 people die and 600 million fall ill annually from foodborne hazards. The highest incidence is in Africa with an estimated 91,000 deaths and 127 million illnesses annually and the heaviest burden of disease on children under five.

Michael Scannell, director for the food chain at DG SANTE, said citizens in Europe demand high levels of food safety and put pressure on politicians to ensure this, who in turn put pressure on civil servants, to make certain regulatory systems are in place.

“In Europe we had Fipronil, which is an insecticide, in eggs and poultry meat and horse meat … but it is important to keep in mind neither of those incidents led to any hospitalizations or deaths yet they triggered media and political reaction,” Scannell told attendees.

Michael Scannell speaking at the event

“If 2,000 people a day were dying as appears to be the case in Sub-Saharan Africa from foodborne diseases you can imagine the scandal that would happen here in Europe. It is only when citizens in Africa demand high standards in relation to food safety that you will see the kind of progress we have seen in Europe.”

Scannell said a mistake can be made in developing countries wishing to export to Europe of creating niche export sectors with high quality instead of tackling domestic issues.

“It can work for a time but it has fundamental weaknesses and risks. My colleagues in DEVCO don’t allow themselves to go down the route of we can and should invest only in the export potential of these countries they realize that it is more important to strengthen the food safety systems in these countries for the benefit of their own citizens and that will in turn create a better export climate,” he said.

“We can and should be optimistic – China has made enormous progress in the last 15 years. China learned in response to melamine in infant formula that citizens’ concerns in relation to food safety was a political issue. They also realized over time that this duality of a domestic and export market is not especially effective and you have to aim for common high standards. We are not dealing with a static situation … and can never afford to be complacent in relation to food safety. Any regulator that tells you food is safe forever, sack them, as something will happen to remind them that is not the case.”

Boost food safety capacity building
The GFSP, a public-private initiative hosted at the World Bank, presented findings from a report on institutions, initiatives and resources devoted to food safety capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa, which included former Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. FDA Michael Taylor as a GFSP consultant.

The work lists findings and makes recommendations based on data from 500 donor-funded projects since 2010 and input from nearly 200 experts and stakeholders. It found current investment is substantially focused on access to regional and overseas export markets, with emphasis on national control systems but little is done to reduce foodborne illness in local consumers.

Lystra N. Antoine, CEO of the GFSP, said capacity building needs in Africa far outstrip current efforts.

“The evidence is clear there is a very large and likely worsening burden of foodborne disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is the current dominance and future persistence of informal markets. There is increasing consumer concern on food safety,” she said.

“Food safety investments are helpful but small. Donor investments since 2010 are difficult to quantify but likely less than $40 million which is small in relation to the burden of foodborne disease and investment in other health areas. Modern food safety management is applied to export sectors but not to informal markets where most African consumers buy food. The focus on hazards persists with little information or attention to risks and that is where the human health impacts become more relevant.”

In sub Saharan Africa, more than 80 percent of animal products are sold through informal markets, which lack structured sanitary inspection.

Kristina Roesel, jointly appointed scientist at Freie Universität Berlin and ILRI, said more than 70 percent of all food is marketed by the roadside, markets or in villages with no supermarkets.

“If you look at East Africa more than 90 percent of the milk is marketed in informal markets and that is not going to change for the next 20 to 30 years. Informal markets are integral to providing food, nutrition and job security … however they are difficult to organize. Investing in informal markets improves health outcomes regionally, by investing in formal markets, the export trade, we are improving a product destined for export in high income countries but it is not going to improve health in the region of Africa,” she said.

“We found that many standards have been directly copied from the European context, some from the 1960s, so they are not feasible in Africa. As urbanisation is growing value chains get more complex and longer, the consumer is far away from the producer and improving a product on a farm may help in some cases but often the problem is contamination at points where products are aggregated and later disaggregated to consumers.”

Roesel said its latest approach to improving food safety is on the consumer end of the supply chain.

“Especially in countries that are better off for example Kenya, South Africa as compared to Niger where the consumer is not really in the position to demand better quality food, we are trying to find out what do consumers like, what do they know about food safety and how can we leverage that to incentivize behavior change of food handlers. A butcher is not going to change or set up a net if they don’t sell more pork and make more profit.”

A Kenyan example
Morag Webb, policy adviser at COLEACP, said Kenya had been successful over the years in developing its export sector to access EU and other global markets.

“They put in place and invested heavily in all the systems including food safety to get this to run. But in 2013-2014 things started to go wrong, import controls in EU countries started to pick up pesticide residues and all of a sudden there was a chain effect and it started to have a bad impact on the sector,” she said.

“There were increased import controls in Europe, reduced exports, companies were losing a lot of money, at the county level you started to see school attendance falling were there was no longer any money within the system to pay for school fees, so there was a massive impact of these pesticide residue exceedances.”

Webb said the problems happened for two principle reasons external to Kenya.

“First, the people they were selling to, predominantly EU retail, their practices were tending to encourage bad practice along the supply chain. You had trading practice whereby last minute changes to orders were encouraging people to side buy from suppliers that were outside their network of trained and controlled suppliers,” she said.

“Alongside that the European Union through pesticide regulatory changes reduced the maximum residue level of one of the main products used in Kenya to analytical level zero. Very quickly they lost a product that was essential to their basic production practices.

“These were two external factors that had a major influence on their capacity to trade. But behind that the checks and balances that were needed in their national systems were not there. The result was the national capacity to address this externally imposed problem was not there.”

A recording of the event can be seen here.

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