A boy eats his lunch of maize and soya in Ethiopia. Food safety needs to be part of the conversation around food security. Photo by: Patti Gower / DFATD-MAECD / CC BY-NC-ND

When the development community talks about food security, discussions generally focus on the quantity and quality of food, with safety only cropping up whenever a major health outbreak occurs.

That shouldn’t be the case. Chemical substances, viruses, parasites and bacteria in food pose serious health risks, which may not only lead to acute and chronic infections, but also increase nutrient deficiencies and reduce nutrient absorption.

And yet the international development community hasn’t given food safety the attention it deserves. That’s according to Angelika Tritscher, the World Health Organization’s risk assessment and management coordinator for its food safety and zoonoses department.

In an exclusive interview with Devex at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Rome, Tritscher stressed that food safety should not be taken for granted. Development actors should not just “talk about improving nutrition and food safety, [they] actually have to do something about it,” she emphasized.

WHO, which will dedicate 2015 World Health Day to food safety, believes it’s now time to integrate the “safety” dimension into the global agenda to fight food insecurity and malnutrition, and has devised a multipronged strategy to do so.

Make data available

Understanding the real public health impact of unsafe food is a major challenge.

“Foodborne diseases are totally underreported because you don’t go to the doctor, you don’t necessarily go to the hospital, unless it is a very severe case,” Tritscher said. “It is very difficult to get an estimate of the actual occurrence of such things.”

For instance, while data suggests more than 2 million people, mostly children, die each year from diarrheal diseases that may have resulted from unsafe food and drinking water, these are just one type of foodborne diseases, WHO’s risk assessment and management coordinator said.

Moreover, the fact food contamination can cause a broad spectrum of nonspecific diseases and symptoms — not only diarrhea or vomiting, but also contributing to cancer or having kidney, liver and cardiovascular effects — make it very difficult to identify the link between affections and unsafe food.

To address the data gap, the U.N. health agency will be releasing the first estimates ever published on the global burden of foodborne diseases before the summer.

Build capacity along the food chain

The agency’s strategy relies not only on providing figures or scientific and technical advice for policymaking to turn international standards into recommendations for limiting contaminations. It also aims to build the capacity of all the actors along the food chain to prevent and mitigate the risks.

According to the WHO official, food safety considerations have to be integrated at each step of the value chain, involving large corporations as well as small farmers and national institutions. If what matters for big companies is essentially the application of international, science-based standards — for instance, the ones limiting residues of pesticides or environmental contamination — when it comes to smallholders, the actions to be implemented are different.

Communities should be involved as well, and Tritscher believes that in this instance, education is key. Villagers need to be made aware of how cow manure, for example, can contaminate vegetable yields and what risks arise if food is not handled and prepared properly.

“What we do is we work with community leaders in the countries, often women. There is a lot of talk about empowering women here,” she said.

WHO — which has a long-standing partnership with FAO — aims to develop new collaborations for the implementation of its food safety programs.

“Working together with civil society organizations [and] consumer representatives, for example, to help us with better consumer education. Or [with] university programs helping with education and training … and with other international organizations,” Tritscher said.

Food safety needs a multisector approach that requires strengthening inter-sectoral collaboration and helping countries to put in place coordination mechanisms for prevention and emergency response.

“The responsibility for food safety at the national level lies often with different authorities, with different ministries. Coordination is critically important. Agricultural, animal health and human health have to work closely together,” the WHO official said.

National capacities need to be strengthened too

But building the capacity of all actors across the food chain isn’t enough. Under the WHO strategy, even national capacities to establish food safety systems, enforce legislation and set up proper laboratories for monitoring and controlling will be built up as well.

WHO is expanding and strengthening its network of partners to achieve this goal.

Its network of collaborating centers — government institutions, research institutions and universities, among others — and the network of international food safety authorities, which include 181 countries participating on a voluntary basis, have two goals: emergency response and sharing best practices. What WHO is doing is implementing regional strategies, setting regional platforms “where the countries in that region talk to each other with the idea that they learn from each other [about] the practical problems encountered,” Tritscher said.

Laboratory surveillance for foodborne diseases is another area worth investing in, according to WHO. According to Tritscher, many countries do not have the necessary infrastructure not just to start an epidemiological investigation but also to carry out the laboratory work to confirm the disease is indeed foodborne.

Codex trust fund enters second phase

Established by FAO and WHO in 1963, the Codex Alimentarius Commission is the body that develops international food standards, relevant also to ensure food safety. In 2015, a trust fund used to help countries to participate and understand the international standard-setting process is coming to an end.

The trust fund is “a capacity building program,” Trischer explained. Initially, it helped countries attend the commission’s meetings before eventually facilitating more effective participation. These included answering questions such as: What does it mean to be prepared for the meeting? How do you prepare your international position? Setting up national infrastructures to get all the information that you need so that you can have an informed discussion when you go to the meeting?

“Now we are thinking about a successive initiative. It is more like a development project,” she said, adding that the second phase will be more focused on building capacities to enforce those standards.

How can food safety best be integrated into efforts to fight food insecurity and malnutrition? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.