Food safety: a critical part of the food system in Africa

Food safety is linked, directly or indirectly, to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those pertaining to ending hunger and poverty, and promoting good health and well-being. Food and nutritional security is realised only when essential elements of a healthy diet are safe to eat. The information in this document was compiled as background reading material for the 52nd Brussels Briefing on Food safety: a critical part of the food system in Africa.

Action from policymakers, producers and consumers is needed to ensure food safety and prevent food-borne illnesses at a time when rapid urbanisation in developing countries, increased demand for food, especially that which is processed, and longer and more complex supply chains are placing unprecedented pressures on local and global food systems.

New opportunities are also emerging in the fight against food-borne diseases, such as improved and more affordable technologies, increased awareness about food-borne diseases, and global value chains that create incentives for the private sector to provide solutions and innovations that address food-borne illnesses.

In many African countries, the capacity gap includes lack of effective public policies and institutions to provide regulatory oversight; insufficient extension services, research, and other technical assistance for producers; too few trained people to carry out food safety activities in both the public sector and in small-and-medium-size enterprises (SME’s) and lack of cold chain facilities, food testing laboratories and other physical infrastructure. These gaps – and the resulting questions about food safety – result in costly illnesses and death for domestic consumers, who rely heavily on informal markets for their food, jeopardise market access and thus economic success for African farmers and food companies.

It is critical to strengthen regulatory frameworks, establish and implement effective food safety systems that ensure that food producers and suppliers along the whole food chain operate responsibly and supply safe food to consumers.

The cost of compliance varies by country, by industry and by actor but remains significant in most African countries. Suppliers in integrated supply chains are more likely to be informed of changes in requirements before stricter standards are imposed while small farmers will miss this information. Actors in Africa are faced with the cost of modifying their processes, but also with the associated costs of testing the products and carrying out conformity assessments. Even if a country complies with the requirements of the importing country, the costs of demonstrating this may be prohibitively high.

Supporting capacity-building in food safety across Africa

The Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) is an innovative, public-private initiative dedicated to supporting and promoting global cooperation for food safety capacity building. GFSP is uniquely able to assess food safety systems and propose systems-based interventions to address specific food sector needs and to prioritise hazards and threats.

Collaborators include leading food and beverage multinationals, intergovernmental organisations, government agencies, global industry organisations, bilateral and multilateral organisations. The work of GFSP is focused on low- and middle-income countries that benefit from the expertise and resources leveraged from among GFSP donors and other stakeholders.

To improve the quantity and quality of food safety capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa, the GFSP commissioned a mapping and analysis of current institutions, initiatives and resources devoted to food safety capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa. The report, “Food Safety in Africa: Past Endeavors and Future Directions” provides data, analysis, and recommendations that organisations working on food safety in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) can use to improve the impact of their efforts. The report focuses on food safety capacity-building investments and activities of the international donor community and ways that both donors and African governments can better target and coordinate those investments, with greater synergy between the public and private sectors. The central theme of this report is that donors, African governments, and the private sector can work together to maximise the impact of food safety capacity-building investments and improve food safety. Everyone agrees that such collaboration is needed. The difficulty is catalysing and sustaining a shift in current practices.

The report provides findings and makes recommendations based on data from over 500 donor-funded projects and activities and input from nearly 200 experts and stakeholders. It provides advice to help donors and African governments better target and coordinate investments, with greater synergy between the public and private sectors.

Current donor investment in food safety in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) largely reflects the concerns of previous decades and as a result is substantially focused on access to regional and overseas export markets, with emphasis on national control systems. However, relatively little is being done to reduce food-borne illness among SSA consumers. New understanding of food-borne disease burden and management, along with rapid and broad change within SSA societies and agri-food systems, have led to food safety emerging as an important public health and development issue. There is need to reconsider national government investment strategies and donor support to the same.

The GFSP report supports progress on food safety. It provides up-to-date information on key food safety actors, presents the first ever analysis of food safety investments in SSA, captures insights from a wide-ranging expert consultation, and makes suggestions for attaining food safety, based on evidence but also consensus principles, successful elsewhere but not yet widespread in SSA mass domestic markets.

Recommendations of the GFSP study

New evidence shows the huge health and economic burden of food-borne disease. SSA has the world’s highest per capita health burden, which disproportionately affects children and undermines the well-being and economic productivity of the whole population. Food safety also underpins the region’s agriculture-led development strategies, including the 2014 Malabo Declaration goal of dramatically increasing trade in food.

Complexity, dynamism and diversity of the food system hinder capacity to plan and target investments but offer opportunities for agri-food system development. Key elements include: predominance of smallholders and diversity of foods; many hazards and limited understanding on their presence, prevalence and contribution to health risks; diverse rapidly evolving formal and informal, domestic and export markets; infrastructure challenges; complex, underfunded, but modernising governance systems; emerging consumer awareness and market demands for food safety that vary widely among countries and between formal and informal markets.

International donor organisations are, and have been, major providers of food safety capacity investments. The report documents over 30 bilateral and multilateral agencies, development banks, and foundations. Although, goals, priorities, and strategies have been largely uncoordinated, investments have been appreciated by stakeholders who also see opportunities for re-orientation of investments towards greater impacts. Current donor investment in food safety remains substantially focused on access to regional and overseas export. Much of this donor investment involves activities that are not linked to health outcomes in SSA. The focus reflects priorities that dominated in past decades, which still have relevance but are no longer enough to address broad food safety needs.

National governments and donors should consider a new approach to capacity building. In keeping with best practice, this should have increased public health focus and investment and greater emphasis on harnessing consumer awareness and market forces to drive progress. Export-oriented capacity building remains relevant, but investments need to be shifted, broadened, brought up to date, prioritised and justified. Specific recommendations and their rationale are:

(a) Better address the health of domestic consumers dependent on informal markets: Most of the health burden of food-borne illness in SSA is borne by the majority who depend on informal markets, where only a small fraction of donor investment has focused. While evidence is good that the health burden is huge, there is a lack of data on the impacts of specific hazards required for prioritisation and on the range, effectiveness and cost of intervention options.

Recommendation. Citizen health should be at the heart of national food safety systems. SSA national governments and regional institutions, in dialogue with the donor community, should establish health-based goals, priorities, metrics and implementing strategies and help generate the missing evidence needed for rational planning.

(b) Build capacity for well-governed, evidence- and risk-based food safety systems: Risk-based approaches to food safety management are increasingly the norm among governments and firms producing for formal markets: approved by SSA governments, they have yet to be implemented in the informal sector. They provide structured and efficient ways of mitigating risk (such as farm to fork management) but require adaption for informal markets and an enabling regulatory environment. Lack of donor co-ordination and underfunded, fragmented and often poorly governed national food safety systems, contribute to regulatory failure and a significant gap between food safety policy, and implementation in most SSA countries.

Recommendation. National governments should endorse principles of science- and risk-based prevention, adapted to local conditions. SSA governments together with donors should mutually commit to improving food safety governance. These include: SSA country ownership of building food safety; government commitment to improving institutions and tackling corruption; donor harmonisation and alignment with national priorities; and, managing for results and mutual accountability.

(c) Harness marketplace drivers of progress on food safety. Improvements in food safety have been mostly the result of public demand. In SSA, a “push” approach still predominates, focusing on the public sector and trade goals. In contrast, “pull approaches” use consumer demand for safe food as the major lever for improvement, while supporting the private sector to respond to this demand. The public sector provides enabling regulatory environment that supports private efforts and increases awareness of food safety among all stakeholders.

Recommendation. National governments, donors and the private sector should use their resources and standing to recognise, catalyse, and support the consumer and marketplace drivers of progress on food safety. This requires well-informed and empowered consumers, able to demand food safety and a private sector that has capacity and accountability to respond to consumer demand.