WHO mulls ways to track food safety progress in development goals

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has discussed plans to include food safety in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Almost 250 indicators are monitored across a range of areas to assess progress toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals introduced in 2015, but no food safety indicator is recognized yet despite the links it has with SDGs on zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and decent work and economic growth.

During a webinar to mark World Food Safety Day on June 7, experts discussed the potential of an SDG indicator for stronger food safety accountability, to track global and national progress and to reduce the health burden from unsafe food. It could be introduced when there is a review of the SDGs in 2025.

Proposed measures
Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, said the Food Systems Summit in September has identified food safety as an important area.

“WHO has been working on the idea of an indicator as part of the revamp of the global food safety strategy. We would like to suggest three indicators accompanied by three targets. There is a lot of energy around the idea of having food safety well-monitored and establishing targets. We need to start from somewhere and establish a first set of indicators but we need to be sure this is something we will update periodically,” Branca said.

One target is a 40 percent reduction in foodborne diarrheal disease by 2030 indicated via an incidence estimate per 100,000 people. Another process indicator covers improving average capacity scores for national foodborne disease surveillance.

Samira Asma

Samira Asma, assistant Director-General for Data, Analytics and Delivery at WHO, said people need to think how there can be a move from an outbreak response to be more proactive, to improve food safety and know a measurable impact in countries is being made.

“If we can manage to introduce a comprehensive index or indicator that is simple, easy to interpret, standardized, reliable enough to measure progress and builds country capacity and not add data collection burden on countries it could truly be a game changer. There are a couple of steps we need to take into consideration. One is justification: Why are we suggesting the introduction of a new indicator into SDGs? The review is going to happen in 2025 but we need to do the work in advance for a new indictor to be introduced into WHO’s general program of work in May 2022,” she said.

Asma added there is precedence with antimicrobial resistance being added as an indicator in the SDGs.

Food Systems Summit work
Lawrence Haddad, chair of Action Track 1 for the UN Food Systems Summit, said he was shocked there wasn’t an SDG indicator for food safety but glad WHO and FAO are working on it. The executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) added there are five food safety themes being developed.

Lawrence Haddad

“The first one is the food safety indicator. Combining that with some kind of food safety index which creates competition amongst countries, it fames countries doing well and highlights countries that need to strengthen and it’s a way of focusing resources on those countries,” he said.

“There’s some work proposed on food safety system innovation facilities and promoting food safety solutions and toolkits. If we can develop rapid and cheap food safety testing that can be used by market organizations we think that could be a game changer and we are working with a number of companies to see what they can do to speed up and reduce the price of their testing programs. Finally, a global network for innovation and capacity building.

“We need to make a big noise at the pre-summit and an even bigger noise at the summit for food safety issues to breakthrough. I’ve been a bit disappointed that food safety has been under the radar but it’s so vital.”

African index feedback
Amare Ayalew, program manager at the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa at the African Union Commission, said the African Food Safety Index (AFSI) is a score with an average of the three indicators and certain parameters.

“In the index we have three indicators on trade, health and food systems in an attempt to capture the complexity of food safety. It was really difficult to capture the entire spectrum of what you could measure in food safety. In designing these we tried to look at the state of data availability and country capacity,” he said.

“We had regional considerations in the design of the AFSI. Liver cancer cases is one of the parameters measured due to aflatoxin. We know our dietary staples are prone to aflatoxin. It was important to capture both microbial and chemical hazards.”

Validation studies showed a need to improve the ability of the parameters to discriminate among different countries with below average to average food safety systems and the requirement for a capacity boost in collection and submission at country level for better data availability. Data collection is happening again in 2021, 2023 and 2025.

Indian example
Pawan Agarwal, former CEO of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), shared the country’s experience of tracking progress in food safety.

“Measuring progress is important to see whether we are moving in the right direction but indicators that are based on outcomes will always have time lags, so any efforts that you make, its impact on performance will take several years and depend on the situation. When we intend to measure progress on food safety are intent is to push governments and other stakeholders to take more concrete action to improve things. Unless there is a relationship between indicators and what actions are required to be taken, that indicator may not be so useful,” Agarwal said.

Agarwal said the FSSAI’s initial culture was command and control by policing food safety before moving to another strategy to build visibility, trust between stakeholders, and shared responsibility. He also mentioned the Eat Right Initiative and India’s state food safety index, which has a scoring matrix and parameters that include human resources, food testing infrastructure and surveillance and training and capacity building.

“Sometimes outcome measurement in food safety is viewed from the number of inspections or enforcements, or people prosecuted under the law, which I think can be a very bad indicator. If you enhance efforts the number of non-compliances will first increase and will only decrease in time. The experience so far has been mixed, data does not capture everything. The second problem is in two years of the index the same states are coming at the top. How can we create enthusiasm amongst the laggard states to improve things? Improvement requires alignment, coordination, culture change and tracking of progress is very important,” Agarwal said.

Ali Badarneh, of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), said plans are needed for any future index or indicator.

“Moving forward for an SDG indicator is something we have to take up but we have to be aware of the risks that food safety may end up diluted amongst the bigger agendas as it was before. It could be lost in the revision of the SDG indicators. We could consider a plan B of a UN or global index not related to the SDG indicators,” Badarneh said.

Choosing what to measure
Fadi Naser Al-Natour, from the Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority, said the UAE would support the move.

“We have here many challenges and need to increase food safety in all countries. Most of our food is imported, so our food safety index is affected by the index in other regions. We have challenges related to culture diversity and language barriers that are not faced in other areas, we need to find indicators and the right way to measure them and ensure efficiency of control measures.”

Markus Lipp

Markus Lipp, senior food safety officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, said food safety is the underlying enabler in many SDG goals.

“Due to the complexity of the actors involved – the private and public sector and consumers – food safety is complicated to say the least. The question is where do we want to make compromises? That is a difficult discussion, there have been suggestions, diarrheal diseases or global or national mortality, there are different approaches and they come with benefits and drawbacks. To change an indicator at a later point is very difficult. Diarrheal diseases are neglecting long term consequences from contaminants like lead on child development. I believe impact indicators are better geared to supporting our goals rather than a specific disease indicator that is just one out of many,” Lipp said.

Matthew Stone, from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), said it was almost impossible to cover all the important elements of a control system in a simple set of measurements.

“It is tempting to want to do so through constructing complex indexes but my preference is to stick with matters that are directly measurable and that cover the outcomes of the food chain that you are wanting to influence. It is much more important to construct a measure that is consistent and comparable over time within one regulatory regime so that their performance can be judged by itself rather than compared to other countries. When we are talking about the SDG process we have to make some difficult decisions and select some key indicators that we escalate and promote,” Stone said.

The webinar was one of the health talks for the Food Systems Summit. Another session was led by Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg with Francesco Branca; Tom Heilandt, of the Codex Alimentarius Commission; Makaiko Khonjefrom the MwAPATA Institute in Lilongwe, Malawi; Professor Alan Reilly, former Food Safety Authority of Ireland chief executive and Carla L. Schwan, from Kansas State University.

EatSafe, the five-year research program sponsored by USAID and led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, also hosted an event. Speakers were Bonnie McClafferty, director of food safety and EatSafe at GAIN; Mohamed Nasser, regional advisor for food safety and quality assurance, World Food Programme in Dakar, Senegal; Olugbenga Ben Ogunmoyela, executive director, Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative; and Priya Prakash, founder and CEO of HealthSetGo and youth champion for Act4Food Act4Change.

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