Food safety as an important global public health and economic concern

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Food safety as an important global public health and economic concern by @ProfIsaacFAdewole

Food safety incidents, or plant and animal trans-boundary disease outbreaks have had negative impacts on public health, on trade, on peoples’ livelihoods and on countries’ economies. Our people are consequently exposed to significant risk of food contamination with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances.

In Africa, a large proportion of ready-to-eat foods is sold by the informal sector especially as street food. The consumption of these foods is common in many countries where unemployment is high, salaries are low, work opportunities and social programmes are limited and where urbanization is occurring at a rapid pace. In selling these foods at relatively low prices, they provide an essential service to workers, shoppers, travellers, school children and low income groups. The people who depend on such foods are often more interested in its convenience than in issues of safety, quality and hygiene. The hygienic aspects of vending operations and the safety of these foods are problematic for food safety regulators. The global food crisis has worsened an already precarious food situation. Lack of access to food influences food intake, consequently impacting on the health and nutritional status of households

According to the World Health Organisation in 2015, access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food is central to sustaining life and promoting good health. It is also a fact that unsafe food containing harmful bacterial, viruses, parasites and other chemical substances are implicated in over 200 diseases ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. WHO estimates showed that about 600 million — accounting for 1 in 10 people globally — fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).

In addition, children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125 000 deaths every year. In terms of specific health problems, diarrhoeal diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230 000 deaths every year (WHO 2015).

In Sub-Saharan Africa, mortality rate from foodborne diseases across all ages is estimated at 700,000. Recent findings from the work of the WHO Foodborne Diseases Reference Group (FERG) revealed that there were more than 1.15 million estimated deaths from diarrhoea in South East Asia and Africa each year in children older than 5.

The negative impact of unsafe food is enormous and it also creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick. One can therefore confidently state that foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems, and harming national economies, tourism and trade.

Food production in Nigeria has received considerable industrialisation, while trading in food and food products is a major source of livelihood for our people. Therefore, the significance of Food Safety cannot be overemphasized. In the words of Graziani da Silva, (DG, FAO) “Food Safety is particularly important in trade since it serves to instil confidence in consumers and in importing countries with regards to traded products”.

Nigeria is not a stranger to food safety governance even though our existing national legislative and institutional frameworks are yet to develop the capacity to prevent food contamination in line with the requirements of International bodies such as the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) and Codex (The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and other recommendations relating to foods, food production, and food safety). Presently, supply of contaminated food is widespread while critical challenges arising from widespread consumption of contaminated foods is a major public health concern.

However, in line with its change mantra, the Federal Government through the Federal Ministry of Health and other relevant stakeholders, as well as development partners have commenced initiatives to reform the existing National Food Safety Control System. The overarching aim of this initiative is to immediately put in-place a system that has the capacity to enable Government fulfil its obligation to its citizens and international community by ensuring that only safe and wholesome food and food products are produced, or traded within territorial boundaries of the country.

The Government is undertaking this course of action as a clear demonstration of its commitment to strengthening the legislative and institutional frameworks to have the capacities to prevent, detect and respond to foodborne outbreaks on a sustainable basis.

In line with the above objective, the Federal Government, along with relevant stakeholders in the Food Safety sector in 2014 finalised and launched the National Policy on Food Safety and Its Implementation Strategy (NPFSIS) as a starting point in enabling the country have a modern, unified and acceptable Food Safety System. The first goal of this Policy document is to update and harmonise all extant laws, regulations and codes of practices related to food safety to meet with international standards

With the support from UNIDO and the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Federal Government, along with stakeholders that constitute the National Food Safety Management Committee (NFSMC), has commenced the implementation of the Food Safety Policy to the point of production of the Draft National Food Safety & Quality (NFSQ) Bill and the Draft Working Paper on Food Safety Institutional Reforms. However, the country still has lots of grounds to cover before getting to the point where we can fully benefit from this draft bill and the institutional reforms.

In terms of food safety governance, the Federal Ministry of Health will continued to support National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), as Government’s Specialised Agency with the mandate to protect Nigerians from the consumption of unwholesome foods, to effectively carryout its mandate in this regard. The agency has the responsibility to regulate and control the manufacture, importation, exportation, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of all processed and/or packaged food in Nigeria.

In the fight against the influx of unwholesome food products into Nigeria, NAFDAC has carved out a directorate to take charge of regulating food safety issues in Nigeria called Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Directorate among others. However, we are aware that the new directorate still needs proper structuring and the draft Food Safety Institutional Reform document has set the guide for this structure.

Equally, the Federal Ministries overseeing Agriculture, Environment, Trade as well as Science & Technology and their agencies carry out their respective mandates towards ensuring the availability of wholesome, safe and nutritious food in the country.

Reforming the Food Safety and control system in the country is a very expensive undertaking and Government cannot do it alone. It is therefore essential that a joint National effort between the private sector and government MDAs at both National and State levels is needed for the safety of food from farm to table. Consequently, I am employing all high-level decision makers in the food production, processing and marketing sector here today to support the vision of the government for a more organised and improved Food Safety structure that will be in line with international best practices.

Your support will amongst other things help the government achieve its goal of reducing the burden of food borne illnesses as well as guarantee the export of our food and agricultural produce to the international markets without rejection on safety grounds.

Prof Isaac Adewole is Nigeria’s Honorable Minister for Health. This was adapted from a speech he delivered at Nigeria Food Safety and Investment Forum

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Food safety as an important global public health and economic concern…

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