African experts discuss food safety on the continent
Speakers at a roundtable discussion stressed the need to build capacity, engage policymakers, and use technology to improve food safety in Africa.
The session, organized by the Africa Union Commission (AUC), featured Simplice Nouala head of the agriculture and food security division at AUC; Ade Freeman, regional program leader for Africa, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Hermogene Nsengimana, secretary general, African Organization for Standardization; Ernest Aubee, head of the agriculture division at the ECOWAS Commission; and Hakim Mufumbiro, Uganda regional coordinator, CCAFRICA.
The African Continental Association for Food Protection (ACAFP) is an affiliate of the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP). The first ACAFP Conference on Food Safety in Africa was held virtually this past week.
Freeman said the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers potential including the opportunity to develop regional value chains.
“We know the challenges in Africa with close to a billion people not having access to affordable diets. There are new opportunities created by the AfCFTA and corresponding activities to reduce the risks in trade but also give greater access to market that would make food more affordable for the African population. It is a game-changer and if implemented well I think it will create huge market opportunities. At FAO, we work with others to ensure this opportunity that Africa has is not missed,” Freeman said.
Nsengimana said having AfCFTA alone doesn’t mean immediate access to the market of other African countries.
“Any country is responsible to protect its consumers on safety issues. It doesn’t mean we enter the agreement and automatically products are moving. We need to build capacity especially on testing as we have a low level of trust in our labs. Which labs are accredited, so I am sure that if I have product from country A in country B, I can trust it is safe,” said Nsengimana.
“We are promoting one standard, one test and one certificate to be accepted on the continent. The burden on SMEs is multiple testing. Mutual recognition agreements can also be used to reduce the burden. We can think about having reference labs as each country will not have a top lab for different testing.”
The bulk of trade in Africa is informal and enforcing food safety remains a challenge, said Freeman.
“In the first place, we need to generate data and provide the evidence on who these traders are, what they are doing and what they need to do to help them mainstream in ways that can promote food safety and access to nutritious food,” Freeman said.
“This involves generating, collating and sharing the data to promote sound decision making, technical assistance and investments. How can we use evidence to bring them into the formal food system, maintain their participation and provide the infrastructure such as labs to be able to respond and manage the food safety risks along the chain.”
Nsengimana said without strong regional value chains the informal sector will be vulnerable to issues on safety.
“We should promote quality culture from the SME level going forward. A bigger value chain can share the cost of certification and conformity assessment. We tend to over regulate, it is a bad thing. We should be teaching and helping the informal sector on how they can go about abiding by SPS measures and TBT requirements but we tend to work on policy,” Nsengimana said.
He added it was important to include the private sector in discussions and engage with consumer associations.
One proposal is to highlight the consequences of unsafe food with policymakers, said Mufumbiro.
“It is key the right information goes to the right stakeholders who are able to make that right decision in terms of investments. In East Africa, we are implementing a project supported by the Codex Trust Fund whose main objective is to raise the profile of food safety in political circles. The outcome we want to see is added investments towards food safety across six countries,” he said.
“We have seen global efforts such as establishment of World Food Safety Day raising awareness. Africa is now developing the food safety strategy and a possibility of creating a food safety week in June. All these actions can help us unlock why it is beneficial to have food safety as one of the priorities areas. A number of countries have been focusing on infrastructure development and security, which are important, but they are beginning to shift to other areas and food safety is one of them.”
Aubee said promotion of trade must start from the local, national and regional level to integrate food safety practices into all aspects of food production, distribution, marketing and consumption.
“In the ECOWAS region, with the free trade area established, it requires we pay more attention to food safety issues because borders are open for food trade. We must empower and build capacities of people in the food safety institutions and customs, quarantine and health services,” Aubee said.
“Some member states don’t invest in food safety and nutrition, the investment is at the level of production. When we invest in food safety, we are investing in people because safe food gives us good health and this makes us more productive economically and socially.”
Emerging risks and solutions
Challenges in the continent require a range of science, technology and innovation, according to Freeman.
“There are a couple of things that are happening but one of the most important is the work we are doing with the African Union Commission to establish the African Food Safety Agency. This will provide an opportunity for a continental effort that is well-coordinated to enhance food safety,” he said.
“We cannot afford to cherry pick but we need to make informed decisions. The tools we have will include risk assessment on the health risk. The second thing is this risk assessment and other evidence should inform regulatory systems so it is not based on emotions. Once we look at the full range of options, as all technologies have their risks, make a sound assessment of the benefits and costs then we need to make the necessary decisions to help Africa address the huge nutrition and food security challenge, otherwise I think we will be left behind.
“Promoting access to safe and nutritious food is not a one institution problem, it is about working together at local, regional, country and international level. There are a lot of ideas on what to do, the challenge is how to do it in a cost effective way. The key focus is on implementation, it is not just the content but also the processes.”
Mufumbiro said ICT is a tool for the future as seen during the pandemic.
“In the development of a food safety strategy for Africa, one of the priorities going forward is setting up an early warning systems and surveillance monitoring because without it you cannot track and trace what is happening on the continent,” Mufumbiro said.
“Communication is one of the biggest gaps. Often information that may not be scientifically robust makes more rounds than scientifically robust information.”
Genetically modified organisms are already in the food system whether people know it or not, said Aubee.
“It is necessary that we look at the impact in terms of is it good for health or not? We need to do more assessment and to educate people on the positive and negatives of it. These are questions we should be answering as a continent because the denial of we don’t have GMOs is not tenable anymore.”
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