FOOD SAFETY FROM FARM TO FORK
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
Today’s consumers are increasingly demanding to know where their food comes from, how it was made and processed and whether it is safe for them to eat. Food industry professionals need to demonstrate responsible practices, full product traceability and compliance to stringent regulations to meet these expectations. It comes as no surprise, then, that the need for laboratory testing, inspection and certification (TIC) has never been greater and continues to grow.
But is this possible or even important in Africa where food security is of major concern and sophisticated maintenance of globalised supply chains a distant reality?
According to Marc Roussel and Sal Govender, vice president Africa and vice president Southern Africa at Bureau Veritas (BV) which offers a complete range of testing, inspection, and certification services to ensure the safety and quality of food from farm to fork, the answer is a resounding yes.
“The one thing that we have learnt from the pandemic is that safety and compliance is important. You can imagine how much more important that this is when it comes to the consumption of food,” Sal pointed out during a recent online discussion hosted by BV.
“You wouldn’t like to be poisoned when you think you are eating something healthy. You do not wish to find that you are eating heavy metals or pesticides or that you cannot trust the labelling to tell you what is inside a box. Sometimes, you need to know what is inside (the products you are eating), the amount of sugar, the preservatives. That is all part of the process,” Marc added.
Sal asked what the consumer would want from food manufacturers. Her answer: “Peace of mind and the assurance that sufficient steps had been taken to ensure safe consumption.”
She noted that it was unacceptable when a food manufacturer was unethical or negligent and didn’t care about the quality and safety process.
According to Marc, statistics show just why it is important to closely monitor food safety “from farm to fork”. It is estimated that more than 90 million people in Africa fall ill because of food borne diseases each year. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable with at least one in every 30 000 people infected actually dying.
The problem, he said, was that the dangers associated with food safety are not immediately obvious. “If I am standing at the top a cliff and leaning over the edge, my body is going to tell me it is dangerous and warn me to not move forward. If I eat something containing pesticide residues, my body won’t send me a signal that this is dangerous. There’s a huge difference.”
It is equally important to start from the very beginning – soil testing and analysis to make sure that dangerous chemicals do not end up on consumers’ plates – followed by inspection of the actual manufacturing process and the end product.
LINKING FOOD SAFETY AND FOOD SECURITY
Sal pointed out that food safety and food security were closely linked. She said that the listeria outbreak in South Africa in 2017/8 which was traced back to processed meat manufacturing plants in Polokwane and the Free State showed that even trusted brands could compromise the safety of consumers.
Linked to Tiger Brands’ ready-to-eat (RTE) Enterprise food production facility in Polokwane, this outbreak was declared the largest ever global outbreak of listeriosis by the World Health Organisation and resulted in 1 060 laboratory-confirmed cases and 216 deaths.
“In the event that food safety measures fall by the wayside and you are not ensured that pathogens like salmonella, e coli or listeria are not contained in food products, you could fundamentally have a food security problem. … when you have a fatality or serious illness, the next consequence is that a particular food is no longer deemed to be fit to eat and is pulled out of the market place.
“In this case, these processed meats were a staple diet / food group for many lower income groups in South Africa. All the shops had to remove this product. There was no consumption and you had to completely stop until the issue was addressed. What happens to those whose main meal is no longer available?
“It creates a food security issue. So food safety is tantamount to food security. If safety requirements are no longer adhered to, you could ultimately be wiping out food groups that many consumers need. The consumer has to move to another meal or food group. What happens if prices hike on that? You are potentially looking at increased hunger with a particular group of people not having access to a particular food.”
But, the flip side of the coin is that stringent food compliance requirements are not only out of reach of most small farmers and food producers but could also drive up the price of even staple foods, again impacting on the poor.
There’s a way around this, believes Sal. She said that smaller agriculturalists and companies could implement non-accredited programmes that still ensured safety and reassured customers that the processes used were safe and that the food that they were buying was exactly what it is made out to be.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR FOOD SAFETY
Ultimately, Sal added, because there were a lot of moving parts along the food chain, the responsibility for food safety actually lay with all involved. This stretched from the grower to the food processor or manufacturer, the warehouse and distributor, the retailer, restauranteur and even the consumer.
“We need food experts to become the catalysts for paradigm change around the issue of food safety. We need to understand the magnitude of this. Responsibility lies with all of us and if we ensure safe practices are in place and adopt correct certification processes, then that responsibility is shared and not as burdensome or too expensive for one particular group of people.”
For Marc, responsibility for food safety also extends to officials and government, particularly in light of the enactment of the Africa Free Trade Agreement which was promulgated in 2018.
A blog entitled Advancing Food Safety in Africa that was prepared by the Food Safety Network and authored by Lee Goss for Agrilinks, noted that Africa was already experiencing rapid growth of the agrifood market.
Intra-African food demand is projected to increase by 178% by 2050. In addition, African diets are changing with more demand for processed products and meats as a complement to traditional staple crops such as maize, sorghum, cassava and pulses, Goss noted.
But, collectively, Africa has the world’s highest per capita incidences of foodborne illness, claiming 137,000 lives a year and causing 91 million cases of sickness, according to the World Health Organization.
Foodborne illness presents significant constraints to low-and middle-income countries, costing them $110 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year.
In addition to massive disparities in food safety regulations between different countries on the continent, there is always the ever present danger of Africa increasingly becoming a dumping of sub-standard food products.
Already, for many African countries, food insecurity, let alone food safety, is a reality to the point where many already rely on imports to feed their people. Goss estimates that Africa’s net food import bill is currently over USD $35 billion a year and is projected to reach USD $110 billion by 2025.
Marc said that, from both an ethical and technical perspective, there was a need for better legislation, greater regulation and, of course monitoring of food.
Food control systems that guarantee food safety and quality and better farming practices are needed everywhere on continent. In many countries, food and drug administration agencies are springing up which is encouraging, he noted.
AV is currently working to set up much needed laboratories in both Nigeria and Kenya.
As exports grow, he said, many African countries were stepping up checks and control – but, in just as many countries food was entering without being checked and border controls are poor to non-existent.
AFRICA AND THE WORLD
Sal believes that food safety is an issue for both first and third world countries in established and emerging markets. This becomes particularly important for food manufacturers who not only want to sell into Africa but want to develop export markets.
“No matter whether you deem yourself first world or an emerging economy, food safety is and should be an issue everywhere. That is why you have global certification and global best practices with which it is important to comply. If you do not ensure compliance, how do you then get access to all those markets?” she asked.
But how far behind are we?
“In terms of food safety and real adoption and action, for every individual within the food chain, every day is a learning curve. You never quite reach where you want to be. We should see ourselves as having to grow and learn every day and ensure adaption to regulatory and mandatory measures. We also have a moral obligation. Juggling with and embracing this is the answer to how we migrate to that maturity we want to get to,” she said.
Marc added: “Let’s make a conscious decision that, wherever we are in food supply chain, food safety becomes the right and ethical way of doing business. Whether you are a big or a small company, you need to think about and be comfortable with what you are doing.”