Building Back Safer: Aligning Food Security and Food Safety
In late February, twenty-four World Food Prize Laureates penned a letter asking the Biden Administration for help. These internationally recognized and exceptional Laureates are known to have—with stacks of proof—advanced the quantity, quality, availability of, or access to food through creative interventions within the food system. They also have collectively requested the new administration in the United States to come back to the table and re-engage to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030.
While they argue for funding to generate more evidence, the Laureates go a step further, calling on the U.S. government to galvanize global leadership in food security and build on past achievements by expanding the “highly successful” Feed the Future Initiative and Innovation Laboratories. GAIN is leading a pioneering Feed the Future project called EatSafe – Evidence and Action Toward Safe, Nutritious Food.
This collective of the world’s most respected geneticists, soil and plant scientists, economists, veterinarians and medical doctors from the public and private sectors raised the clamour that the food system is dangerously broken and that it is critical that the U.S. takes a lead now to ensure the future of our food system addresses the humanitarian challenge of feeding the world, through a food system that produces a healthy, safe, and sustainable food supply.
The future, they argue, must also include a focus and investment in the safety of the foods. Food safety is not new, but it hasn’t taken a front seat in the food security arena even though it needs to, urgently.
Since 1986, World Food Prize Laureates have made their mark across a multitude of food-related scientific disciplines throughout the public and private sectors. They have dedicated their life’s work to agricultural innovation, making the case for various nutrients for human growth and development, or focusing on one food as a major part of the solution, or technology that will bring foods closer to the hungry. Through their formidable research, they all realize that no matter how abundant, sustainable, cost effective, resilient, or diverse our diets become, if food is not safe, it cannot nourish. In fact, the foods that are essential to improve nutrition can also be the riskiest.
Just how big is the food safety problem? Big enough to warrant its own clarion call. According to WHO:
Each year 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths occur due to foodborne illness.
Seventy-five percent of all deaths from foodborne illness are in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia.
The highest per capita burden falls in Africa, which is 27 times higher that Europe or North America.
The World Bank estimates that foodborne illnesses cost about $23.5 billion per year due to sickness and loss of life, workplace absences, treatment, and impacts on trade.
Each year in early March, we celebrate women around the world. While food safety is vital for everyone, it is especially crucial for women -- particularly for pregnant women, their yet-to-be-born babies, and children younger than five. Foodborne illness hits pregnant women and young kids the hardest; children under five bear 40 percent of the burden. Pregnant women are at high risk of developing food poisoning because immune system changes in pregnant women places them, their unborn children, and their newborns at increased risk of foodborne illness. Some foodborne hazards can cause miscarriage or premature delivery and others can infect the foetus even if the mother does not feel sick. Such is the case with toxoplasmosis, which can lead to blindness and mental disability in infants exposed in utero.
From a health, nutrition and food security perspective, diarrhoea worsens malnutrition and malnutrition weakens defences against diarrhoea. Foodborne illness kickstarts a horrible vicious cycle that too many times comes to a tragic end. Pathogens introduced through food sadly disproportionately burdens low income and vulnerable kids and their moms, who simply do not have the defences to put up a fight.
The numbers speak for themselves; there are many areas where we could focus efforts to improve food safety and issue a call for action. For now, we focus on two:
Build domestic food safety governance and oversight: In many low and middle-income countries, the emphasis is slowly changing from food safety for exports to food safety for all. Domestic consumers, especially those who shop at traditional markets, deserve protection as least equal to international food companies. Although food safety laws and regulations often exist, they are loosely applied in domestic markets. In many LMIC there is a lack of government surveillance and enforcement, especially in the traditional markets where the vulnerable are sourcing their foods.
Measure the extent of the problem where it is greatest. If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it, but foodborne illnesses are frequently hidden from sight. It is essential that food safety and public health programs work together to measure baselines and conduct surveillance. We need to know when and where the outbreaks are occurring and why and just how big those occurrences are. Food Safety is understudied and the only comparable global data we have are from a single, ground-breaking WHO study published in 2015 (from data gathered in 2010).
By conveying two pointed calls for action, we are not under-emphasizing the gargantuan task ahead for food safety. We need capacity – human, laboratory, and innovation. The essential infrastructure for safe food is missing in many countries - cold chains, clean water, safe supply chains from farm to market, and the overarching goal to inculcate a culture of food safety from government to industry to markets to households is not there.
The World Food Prize Laureates challenge us to “imagine a world in which everyone is well-nourished and no one goes to bed hungry.” Focusing on food safety as a cornerstone of a modernized and responsible food system is essential to meet this challenge.
This month we celebrate women around the world. Whether we are Laureates, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, or mothers, we wish our sisters well. We ask that you stay safe and eat safe, because, despite the tireless work of researchers, agencies, governments, industry, and supply chain actors, if unsafe, your food may not be food at all.