The problem of unsafe food has yet to get the global attention and resources it deserves, according to an expert cited in a new film.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Feed The Future program, Evidence and Action Towards Safe Nutritious Food (EatSafe), documentary focuses on traditional markets, known as informal or wet markets.

Delia Grace Randolph, a researcher on food safety in traditional markets, said: “If you want to make a difference to the health, happiness, livelihoods, and wealth of people, go for problems which are huge, neglected, and tractable, and food safety is that.”

Randolph added that consumer demand for safe food can catalyze change in traditional markets.

The scale of the issue is now apparent
Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) because of foodborne disease have been estimated at 42 million. This is comparable with diseases commonly referred to as “The Big Three” — malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. Children younger than 5 are at the highest risk, bearing over 40 percent of the foodborne disease burden while only making up 9 percent of the population.

Randolph said that until recently, nobody understood how big a problem foodborne disease was.

“It can cause a whole range of symptoms and syndromes, everything from vomiting and diarrhea up to serious illnesses such as blindness, epilepsy, and even death. Because the burden of foodborne disease was unknown and wrongly believed to be very low, investments in food safety have been less than investments in the big three,” she said.

“It is quite clear that a relatively small number of hazards, maybe 10 or 20, cause a great bulk of the disease, 80 percent or more. It is often wrongly said that poor people don’t care about food safety, but we’ve done lots of surveys that show they care. They can’t always afford or recognize the safe food they want.

“We found two common approaches. One was to provide infrastructure, but often, when you provide hard skills without soft skills, it doesn’t last. With time, the infrastructure degrades, and things can end up worse. The other approach is training, but too often it has just been telling people what they should do, and we know this is not a very effective way of changing behavior.”

African momentum
The short film introduced the Three-Legged Stool Approach to food safety, which includes creating enabling environments, training and technologies, and establishing incentives for behavior change. 

Speaking on a webinar after a screening of the film, Randolph and Dr. Augustine Okoruwa, from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), raised the importance of training that is open to women and done in the local language. It was also crucial to consider the local context, customs, and traditions and to help consumers understand their role and responsibility in the safe storage and handling of food.

Okoruwa highlighted the Food Safety Strategy for Africa published in 2022; a recent meeting of the African Food Regulatory Authorities Forum in Egypt, where progress was made in establishing the African Agency for Food Safety; the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement; and the African Food Safety Index.

EatSafe began in 2019 and ends in July 2024. The consortium includes GAIN, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Pierce Mill, and the Busara Center for Behavioral Science, focusing on Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Richard Pluke, EatSafe’s chief of party, said the film was an urgent summons to address an unrecognized global crisis, underscoring the impact of foodborne disease and the need to address gaps in food safety.

“Food Safety: The Biggest Development Challenge You’ve Never Heard Of” can be viewed on YouTube.

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