Bringing Food Safety into the Nutrition World
What does food safety have to do with nutrition? That was the question motivating a symposium held in early December at the International Congress of Nutrition (ICN), the largest global nutrition conference held every four years—this time, in Tokyo, Japan. The symposium, sponsored by USAID’s Feed the Future-funded EatSafe program, brought together experts in food safety and nutrition from Asia, Africa, the United States and Europe. The aim of the event was to elucidate the linkages between food safety and nutrition, provide concrete examples of what integrated food safety and nutrition programming and policy look like in practice, and thus help bridge the gaps between the two fields.
Dr. Stella Nordhagen of The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) (Switzerland) opened the symposium with a primer on foodborne illness, highlighting that it is something of a neglected public health challenge, associated with a global burden of disease comparable in size to that of malaria but receiving only about 1/50th the funding. She then synthesized work from EatSafe to map out the main pathways through which nutrition and food safety are interlinked — including through physiology, consumer practices, food supply chain practices and policy and regulations.
Dr. Haley Oliver, of Purdue University (USA), presented via video that gave concrete examples of the diverse ways in which the USAID’s Feed the Future-funded Food Safety Innovation Lab (FSIL) works to improve food safety. Through activities in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and Senegal, FSIL is working to identify food safety knowledge gaps and develop data-driven food safety practices and policies to strengthen household and community nutrition, food security and economic opportunity. A focus on nutrient-dense, perishable foods like dairy, poultry, fish and vegetables is a key feature of the FSIL — and one that the nutrition-minded audience at ICN could easily appreciate, as these foods are often promoted in nutrition programs (but not necessarily with attention to their safety).
Next, Pawan Agarwal, former CEO of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and current CEO and Founder of the Food Future Foundation (India), offered an account of India’s impressive multi-pronged efforts to improve food safety alongside nutrition and food sustainability. As a small regulatory agency trying to address food safety in a country of 1.3 billion people and 5 million registered food vendors — plus a large informal sector — the FSSAI needed to be innovative and agile. FSSAI relied on a systems approach integrating mass mobilization, standardization, capacity building, and recognition/reward (as opposed to the more traditional approach of fines and punishments). For example, they created a simple system of hygiene certification, open to businesses of all sizes and kinds; used a hub model to train thousands of small-scale food entrepreneurs; and developed appealing brands and recruited celebrity influencers to promote healthy foods.
Dr. Angela Parry-Hanson Kunadu, of the University of Ghana and presenting via video, provided a view from halfway around the world. Her clear examples, drawn from several research studies with diverse local populations, showed how Ghanian consumers understood food safety and how their food choices were driven at least partly by safety concerns — such as by avoiding certain dairy products seen as less safe, or using their own techniques to mitigate food safety risk when eating a favorite local street food associated with cholera, waakye. She emphasized the need to amplify consumers’ existing awareness and channel it towards demanding safer foods and operationalizing safe food practices.
Carol Wilson, Director of the Center for Nutrition in USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, wrapped up the event by summarizing how USAID is working to use a food systems approach to integrated food safety and nutrition programming. This approach involves working with diverse partners — including FSIL and EatSafe — throughout the food system, from production, through each step in the food value chain, to consumers, as such a comprehensive approach is essential for tackling these inherently systemic challenges to improved food security and resilience. She concluded with a recurring theme of the symposium and one on which both food safety specialists and nutritionists can agree: “If it’s not safe, it’s not food!”
This blog was made possible through support provided by Feed The Future through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), under the terms of Agreement #7200AA19CA00010. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.