Investing in Food Safety in Developing Countries Could Improve the Quality of Life for Billions Worldwide
The world’s fast growing population, which reached 7.5 billion in April 2017 and is projected to reach 9.7 by 2050, is putting huge pressure on governments and the food industry, especially in developing countries, to increase food production. This trend may result in more food safety issues (according to 2015 World Health Organization estimates, foodborne illnesses are making 600 million people ill and kill 420,000 people every year worldwide) that will negatively affect global public health, trade and economic growth. The biggest food safety issues in developing countries are the lack of clean water (around 750 million people do not have access to clean water), the use of human sewage and raw animal waste for horticulture production, mycotoxins and the excessive use of pesticides and veterinary drugs.
The global trade laws allow exports among developing and developed countries. For example, 15 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported, and more than 50 percent of this imported food is from developing countries. Therefore, investing in food safety systems in developing countries can play an important role in improving billions of peoples’ lives through improving the agricultural production, employment opportunities, domestic and international public health, and export markets.
Developing countries must invest in food safety through adopting and implementing functional food safety systems to be in compliance with international food safety standards and regulations in order to export food to developed countries. There are three types of food safety systems:
- Basic food safety system where at least good hygiene practices are being applied along the value chain. Normally, this simple system does not exist in the informal food chains.
- Middle food safety system, which represents more advanced food safety elements including final product testing.
- Advanced food safety system where risk-based approaches are used. A functional food safety system requires specific elements, including physical infrastructure, commitment, human capital, institutional norms and food safety management programs, such as Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Good Hygiene Practices (GHPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), adhering to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), etc.
Implementing these food safety programs is very costly. For example, the new FSMA-produce safety rule will cost the large, small and very small farms about USD $30,000, $12,000 and $6,000 respectively annually. But it has been estimated that implementing FSMA will save billions of dollars in the future. Most governments in developing countries have limited resources and weaker economies. Therefore, investment in food safety does not exist, or it is often reactive and unsustainable, occurring after food safety outbreaks or trade bans. Normally, reactive food safety systems are very expensive and not effective in the long term. Thus, investing in proactive food safety system through strategic plan is necessary where the costs can be spread over longer periods of time and the benefits are higher.
To invest wisely in food safety systems, food safety must be integrated across the entire food value chain from farm to fork, with three sectors-sharing responsibility: government, industry and consumers. Governments must supply clean water and sustainable electricity. Efforts are also needed to help improve environmental conditions, develop and enforce regulations and standards, establish effective product recall systems, and provide timely and accurate information to the public about food safety incidents and recommendations for reducing risk exposure. The food industry must comply with the regulations and standards and communicate with consumers to explain the actions that have been taken to address the food safety incidents. The consumers must demand safe food, buy from trusted suppliers and handle and prepare food properly.
Also, to establish suitable food safety management programs in developing countries it is important to understand the domestic informal and formal sectors and international trade. Because government regulations and enforcement are weak in developing countries, the informal sector is large; more than 80 percent of the meat, milk, eggs and fish produced is sold in informal markets. Informal sectors, with fewer connections between actors and regulatory oversight that include wet markets and street food, are essential for the economic growth where most smallholders and poor consumers sell and buy food. Adopting and implementing basic food safety programs such as GHPs can improve food safety in these sectors.
On the other hand, the formal sector is associated with urbanization, where transformation in diet from starchy staple foods to diverse, high-value perishable foods (vegetables, fruits, meat, etc.) occurs. Also, urbanization means travelling across longer distances, which can increase the risk of contamination compared to short distances, especially in the absence of cold chains. Formal sectors, including export-oriented food value chains, are also more organized and have the resources to invest in more advance food safety programs where risk assessment is used, such as HACCP, FSMA, etc.
When should investing in food safety be a priority in developing countries?