The impact of unsafe food costs low- and middle-income economies about $110 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year, according to the World Bank.
The study, supported by the United States Food and Drug Administration, found some costs could be avoided through practical and often low-cost behavior and infrastructure changes at points along food value chains.
Productivity loss associated with foodborne disease in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is estimated at $95.2 billion per year and the annual cost of treating such illnesses is around $15 billion.
Other costs including losses of farm and company sales, foregone trade income, health repercussions of consumer avoidance of perishable yet nutrient-rich foods and the environmental burden of food waste are more difficult to quantify.
China accounts for more than $30 billion of the total burden of foodborne disease in LMICs and India for $15 billion, with the two countries responsible for 49 percent of the economic burden of foodborne disease in LMICs and 71 percent of the total burden in Asia.
For many such countries, rapid demographic and dietary changes are contributing to wider exposure of populations to foodborne hazards, stretching capacity to manage food safety risks. In most regions, capacities to manage food safety risks for exports appear to be stronger than those to protect domestic consumers.
Juergen Voegele, senior director of the Food and Agriculture Global Practice at the World Bank, said food safety receives relatively little policy attention and is under-resourced.
“Action is normally reactive – to major foodborne disease outbreaks or trade interruptions – rather than preventative. By focusing on domestic food safety more deliberately, countries can strengthen the competitiveness of their farmers and food industry and develop their human capital,” he said.
In many countries, action on domestic food safety has been sporadic and reactive after major outbreaks, trade bans or adulteration scandals. Animal source foods are a high proportion of foodborne disease in many LMICs, yet capacities to manage food safety hazards from animal sources are generally weak.
“Among the 34 Sub-Saharan African countries for which assessment data are available, only four are deemed to have adequate capacity for identifying and tracking animals and animal products, and only a similar number can adequately inspect abattoirs. Capacities for quarantine and border security are somewhat better, yet these are deemed adequate in only 21 percent of the 34 countries,” according to the report.
LMICs in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa account for 41 percent of the global population but are afflicted with 53 percent of all foodborne illness and 75 percent of related deaths.
According to estimates released in 2015 from the World Health Organization, foodborne diseases made 600 million people sick and caused 420,000 premature deaths in 2010. Children under the age of five accounts for 9 percent of the global population but 38 percent of foodborne disease and 30 percent of related deaths.
The World Bank report translates these statistics into economic terms to focus government attention on the need for greater investment, better regulatory frameworks, and measures that promote behavior change.
Steven Jaffee, a lead agriculture economist at the World Bank and study co-author, said governments in LMICs need to be smarter when investing in food safety and track the impact of interventions.
“This means investing in foundational knowledge, human resources, and infrastructure; realizing synergies among investments in food safety, human health, and environmental protection; and using public investment to leverage private investment.”
Food safety investments relate to hardware such as laboratories and marketplaces and software including management systems and human capital. Enhancing food safety management capacity should involve the public and private sectors.
Many consumers in LMICs, hypothetically at least, show a willingness to pay a premium for what they perceive to be safer food. Challenges of tackling food safety in the process of economic development come from market failures associated with providing safer food and the need to work with all food value chain actors.
The study supports greater emphasis on providing information and resources to motivate and empower the sector to comply with food safety regulation. The traditional approach centers on enforcing regulatory compliance through product testing and facility inspections with legal and financial penalties for violations.
“The results of regulation should be measured in terms of compliant enterprises, confident consumers, and food safety outcomes rather than the number of fines or business closures,” added Jaffee.
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