Researchers have proposed a radical shift in how food safety is looked at in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

They said the top-down focus of efforts to build food safety capacity in LMICs has largely failed when it comes to the informal sector. Instead, interventions, both regulatory and facilitative, should primarily be implemented at the municipal level and the focus to build capacity needs to be local.

The report, commissioned by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the CGIAR Initiative on One Health, highlighted the need for strategies to address food safety risks in the informal sector of developing nations as very few countries have coherent plans to tackle the issue.

Authors argue broad use of terms like “informal sector” and “developing countries” are not helpful in tackling the problem as there are different types of players and risk profiles, operating in a variety of settings. Distinctions are needed to better discern what is and is not possible, and what actions should be prioritized and are most feasible in different contexts.

Current situation and focus areas
“Previous studies have shown widespread issues of food contamination within informal food distribution networks,” said Steven Jaffee, report co-author and lecturer at the University of Maryland.

Contributing factors include inadequate food safety awareness, poor hygiene practices, substandard food storage and preparation methods, and deficient infrastructure and environmental conditions. Previous studies in Thailand, Mexico, and Malaysia found significant levels of Salmonella contamination in chicken sold in supermarkets and traditional markets.

Most current approaches are making little headway in tackling these problems, said experts. However, the Eat Right India program was flagged as a positive which involves formal and informal food enterprises and consumers.

During a webinar presenting the report, Jaffee said food systems in developing countries are evolving quickly but smaller players and less formal channels are common for fresh produce, meat, and fish.  

“We estimate that for lower and LMICS that a large majority of the burden of foodborne illness can be attributed to the informal sector. Unsafe food in informal distribution channels represents a central part of the food safety challenges facing developing countries. This is a big problem, it may get bigger and it’s not going away,” he said.

“Our overall assessment is first, we see important policy gaps, very few countries have included the informal sector in their vision of national food system development or defined a coherent approach to this sector in national food laws. The upkeep of markets has often been an area of neglect. Second, some interventions have probably been counter-productive. Official interactions often involve attempts to issue fines or other punishments due to non-compliance with regulations. Third, some interventions have shown promising initial results yet sustaining these gains has been difficult without follow-up efforts or investments in infrastructure.”

Jaffee said just devoting more resources to current actions is unlikely to deliver much better results.

“We don’t believe that centralized agencies can deliver safer food in the informal sector. Standalone programs and projects may not be the most successful means of deploying resources. Food safety initiatives could be better incorporated into other programs by combining attention with that for nutrition, environmental and animal health or other areas,” he said.

“We need to rebalance the sticks and carrots and the interface between government and informal markets. As lower LMICs update their regulations and build enforcement capacity they should avoid the temptation to pursue a policing approach. Instead, they need to emphasize the promotion of good practice and sustained improvement. Local officers are the ones interfacing with community markets and small processors and street food vendors. Let’s give them better tools and more resources to induce upgrades.”

WHO and FAO backing
Simone Moraes Raszl, of the World Health Organization (WHO), and Markus Lipp, from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), welcomed the report.

“I agree that we need to have coherent strategies for tackling food safety risks in the informal sector and we need to consider that each context will require a specific solution. We need to understand why consumers choose to buy from informal markets or vendors, the answer may not be the same for all countries. For example, why a consumer wants to go to a market to choose a live chicken to be slaughtered and bring it back home? What drives this behavior? Is it culture, something their mother always did or they don’t trust the inspection service in the country? If we don’t understand the behavior we won’t be able to define strategies. We also need to think about the role of women in food markets,” said Raszl.  

“It is fantastic that a very comprehensive and systematic approach to informal markets has been published because it will shape the discussions going forward. Everybody knows about food and that makes the discussion complicated because it gets personal if behavioral changes are required. Informal markets are part of the agri-food system and they will stay there for quite some time to come. We feel this report gives us the language and the intellectual framework to continue, fine-tune and expand the discussions and to build on this with interventions which hopefully improve food safety for everybody,” said Lipp.

The report sheds light on the dominant role of small-scale processors, grocers, market vendors, and food service operators in informal markets in more than 20 low- and lower-middle-income countries and emphasizes that a one size fits all approach will not work.

Investments have been made in testing laboratories, food company inspection units, and national agencies but efforts primarily focus on medium and larger enterprises in the formal sector.

Strict enforcement of the regulation is unlikely to be effective for informal food sector operators. Gradual and continuous enhancements in food hygiene and other practices are more likely to help secure their ongoing viability, said authors.

Municipalities must-see financial penalties as a last resort, rather than a source of revenue. While shutting down businesses and harassing street vendors might send a message of seriousness about food safety to the public, these measures tend not to result in sustained safer food in the marketplace. Authors suggested food officer bonuses could be tied to the number of food safety-compliant vendors or processing enterprises, rather than the amount of fines issued.

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