FAO assesses food safety role at times of food insecurity

FAO assesses food safety role at times of food insecurity

by Sue Jones
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Food safety needs to be considered in situations involving food aid and limited availability, according to the FAO.

A case study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations presents two scenarios — heavy metal (lead) in corn and fungal toxins (fumonisins) in cereal grains — showing food safety issues in food insecurity situations.

Both situations identified a health risk despite the foods meeting current international safety standards.

“Food aid is consumed for only a relatively short time, and is the main or even sole form of nutrition for beneficiaries,” said Markus Lipp, FAO senior food safety officer.

“This publication is pivotal in exploring novel ways to consider how to best protect the health of beneficiaries of food aid, while strengthening regional capabilities in food production at the same time,” he said.

In times of food insecurity, relief in the form of food aid is distributed by specialist organizations, such as the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). During such times, food safety must be considered to evaluate the impact of aid on food availability while minimizing the risk of exposure to foodborne contaminants among recipients, who may already be vulnerable due to malnutrition.

Lead risk from food aid
In the first assessment, exposure to lead when consuming Super Cereal plus, a WFP product with corn as a main ingredient, by infants and children, was associated with a possible IQ decrease of 2 points. While an IQ decrease of this range may not have a significant impact on individuals, it can at a population level.

Risk mitigation options include the WFP updating specifications to include a limit for lead, Codex could develop lead maximum levels for foods consumed by young children or the current Codex lead maximum level for cereal grains could be decreased.

WFP changed the requirements for Super Cereal plus to add limits for tropane alkaloids and certain mycotoxins after 315 people fell ill and five died in Uganda in 2019.

In March 2010, death and illness primarily among children under the age of 5 in Zamfara State in Nigeria was reported by Médecins Sans Frontières to state health authorities. More than 400 children younger than 5 died, and hundreds more were put at risk of death or serious acute and long-term health effects due to extremely high levels of lead in their blood.

The source of lead was artisanal gold mining involving processing of gold ores containing up to 10 percent lead within the residential compounds. Main routes of lead exposure were ingestion and inhalation of contaminated soil and dusts.

Follow-up investigations found most dietary lead exposure was associated with contamination of cereal grains and legumes during post-harvest processing and preparation in contaminated homes. Staple foods made from maize, guinea corn, millet and local rice prepared in home compounds were associated with most of the suspected dietary lead intake. Factors such as the dusty environment, fasting between meals and nutritional deficiencies likely aggravated lead ingestion and absorption.

Mycotoxins in grains
The second scenario covered exposure to fumonisin from consumption of cereal grains.

Cereal grains, including maize, are important sources of calories in many African countries and fumonisins are considered to be a major contaminant for rural African populations.

Consumption of corn-based foods that meet the Codex maximum level for fumonisins by adults or children in regions of Africa associated with high daily maize intakes could result in exposures that exceed the current recommendations. The high fumonisin intake for children has been associated with growth impairment such as stunting.

Risk management options include Codex expanding the maximum level categories for fumonisins to include foods being consumed by infants or including other cereal grains besides maize.

Decreasing exposure would require an approach to mycotoxin reduction involving establishing regulatory limits. Any such rules should be evaluated for impact on food availability so that food insecurity is not increased unintentionally, found the case study.

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