Experts revealed how they see the food safety situation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America at a recent online event.

Regional specialists shared their insights on safe food and realities on the ground considering politics, financing, scalability, inclusivity and gaps in capacity, and infrastructure. Panelists spoke about challenges, lessons learned, successes, and their vision for the future of food safety.

More than 400 people registered for the webinar which was organized by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and moderated by Steve Wearne, vice chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Amaye Amalew, program manager at the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), said Africa is the region worst hit by the impact of unsafe food and the economic cost is also enormous.

“On the whole, most African countries appear to have in place most components of a solid food control system but implementation is a challenge. In many cases, food safety is fragmented with little coordination. When things go well food safety becomes everybody’s business but when things go wrong it becomes nobody’s business. There is a lot to be done to give food safety the attention and prioritization it deserves,” Amalew said.

Focus back on domestic food safety
Amalew also spoke about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), how the African Union is developing a continental food safety strategy and the ongoing process of establishing the African Food Safety Agency.

“African countries have begun trading under the AfCFTA and there is increased trade driven commitment for improved food safety which can be harnessed to raise levels more broadly. However, we should be careful to avoid past mistakes so that we don’t follow a lopsided approach focusing on food safety for export. There are other commitments to end hunger, reduce poverty and increase income which are also driving improvements in food safety,” he said.

“There is an excessive focus on food safety for export trade and there is a need to address food safety in the domestic market for public health. A focus on trade has not had a spillover effect for domestic food safety and the government focus on official controls for export shipments has not helped countries to establish food safety norms and culture.”

As part of the African Food Safety Index in 2019, there were 49 of 55 member states whose officials submitted data on some aspects of the index while in 2021, this rose slightly to 51 nations.

“I said there is commitment, I didn’t say there is capacity. We can use this opportunity to translate this commitment into better data for risk assessment and risk-based food safety management,” said Amalew.

“A 2018 AOAC study found there are 300 registered food testing labs in Africa but 60 percent were not accredited for the tests they were doing. About 50 percent of labs had some analytical equipment they had never used. Analytical capacity requires improvement. Countries are at different levels.”

The challenge is where to invest in testing capacity as manpower is a huge area, said Amalew.

“The biggest gap appears to be the food safety workforce — inspectors, regulators, analysts and risk assessors. I don’t think this problem is limited to Africa. The thing is we have to improve data for risk and science based approaches to food safety. Success is reducing foodborne illness and mortality especially in children under 5.”

Americas and Asia focus
Ana Marisa Cordero, agricultural health and food safety acting manager at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), said the Americas is one of the world’s leading food producing and exporting regions.

“Food safety requires political commitment and active participation of all stakeholders along the food chain. This is part of the challenge that we need to work around in terms of developing capacity building and education strategies to promote the importance of food safety to protect the health of consumers. It is a matter of trying to optimize the financial and technical resources for the implementation of effective policies and regulation,” she said.

“One of the main challenges is how food safety can become a priority among government leaders. How we can raise this topic and show food safety matters and is a shared responsibility? Also, how can we implement effective risk-based policies along food chain? How we can learn from other countries in terms of food safety implementation? We need to bring all sectors into the discussion on food safety.”

Cordero added SME growers need special attention with education and training on the importance of food safety. She said there are many emerging issues, including climate change, and regulations need to take into consideration the diversity of production systems across the Americas.

Pham Duc Phuc, coordinator of the Vietnam One Health University Network, said it was important for different national agencies to share data and to have public private partnerships.

“The first important thing is we need to identify what is the policy and regulation at the moment to promote and increase demand for healthy food? And we need to strengthen this. The second is to provide clear information to the consumer. The third thing is how to improve the food safety system with increasing evidence on the cost and risk,” he said.

“Further challenges are human resources, infrastructure, technology and culture. In Vietnam, in the north and south people have different behavior. In rural areas, people prefer to buy their food in wet markets and they don’t go to the supermarket. It is a barrier we need to overcome, to understand what they need.”

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