Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Food Safety in Informal Markets in Low-Income Countries

In many parts of the world, informal markets, animal-source foods and food safety are inextricably linked. Creating effective policies will require understanding these links and identifying how to make improvements without creating unintended negative consequences in other areas.

Why animal-source foods matter: In poor countries, livestock and fish feed billions. Even small amounts of meat, milk, eggs and fish are important sources of the micronutrients and high-quality proteins essential for growth and health, as they are more bioavailable than plant-based foods. Studies have shown strong associations between eating animal-source food (ASF) and child growth and cognitive function, as well as better pregnancy outcomes for women and reduced illness for all. Production and marketing of livestock and fish also earns money for farmers, traders and sellers, many of whom are women. In East Africa, almost half of rural incomes rely to some extent on livestock and fish, while India has the largest dairy sector in the world, employing more than 100 million farmers. Yet ASFs are significant sources of biological and chemical hazards that can cause sickness and death.

Informal markets, a history of neglect, and unbalanced interest: In countries where incomes are low, governments are weak and enforcement of regulation is poor, the informal sector is large. In these markets, many actors are not licensed and do not pay taxes; traditional processing, products and retail prices predominate; and effective health and safety regulations are often evaded. Previously undervalued, the informal sector is now recognized as an important provider of employment and an engine of economic growth, accounting for up to 39 percent of local gross domestic product. More than 80 percent of the ASF produced in poor countries is sold in informal markets.

Much attention has been paid to the role of informal markets in maintaining and transmitting diseases, but little to their role in supporting livelihoods and nutrition. Undoubtedly, hazards exist in informal milk and meat markets, including pathogens such as diarrhea-causing Escherichia coli and Salmonella, as well as aflatoxins and tapeworm cysts. Food-borne illness is of growing concern to consumers and policymakers alike, concerns heightened by the landmark Global Burden of Disease studies which found that foodborne diarrhea is among the most common causes of sickness and death in poor countries. Policymakers often respond to health risk by favoring industrialization and reducing smallholder access to markets. These changes are often based on fear, not facts.

Research on food safety and informal markets: “Hazards” are defined as any foreign agent present in food. However, the true impact on human health depends on whether the consumer eventually ingests sufficient amounts of a hazard and the nature of the disease it causes. This largely depends on production, processing and consumption practices of the food. Our research approach uses the internationally-established risk analysis framework and closes data gaps by using participatory methods. We continue detecting hazards in many animal-sourced foods across our study sites and in both formal and informal markets but with varying levels of risk to public health and local economies. The ultimate goal is to minimize the food-borne disease burden for poor consumers (safe food) while maximizing market access for the poor dependent on livestock products and animal-sourced foods (fair food).

This post was written by Kristina Roesel, Postdoctoral Scientist, Animal and Human Health Program at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). She previously served as coordinator of the Safe Food Fair Food project in Africa.

This post is adapted from a chapter in the book "Food Safety and Informal Markets: Animal Products in Sub-Saharan Africa" published by Routledge in 2014. Please see these additional resources: