A Food Safety Approach to Strengthening Resilience in Developing Countries
Recently, even with greater efforts, the international development community has failed to reduce world hunger. In fact, global hunger has increased, and the number of undernourished people reached 821 million in 2017, due in part to the conflicts and violence in several areas of the world including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Myanmar, the Sahel, etc. In addition to conflict and violence, there are many other factors involved, including the complexity of the food supply chain (globalization), population growth, urbanization, climate change, water availability and quality, demographic changes, unsafe food, etc. that can inhibit the effectiveness of food security, nutrition and development programs. Building resilience is a must to achieving our ultimate goal of sustainably reducing hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty.
Resilience comes from the Latin word resilire, meaning to recoil or jump back. It is believed to have been first used in the 19th century. However, resilience is a relatively a new concept to food security, nutrition and development sectors. It is also a complex concept that has not been fully understood. The Food and Agriculture Organization defines it as “the ability to prevent disasters and crises as well as to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from them in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner. This includes protecting, restoring and improving livelihoods systems in the face of threats that impact agriculture, nutrition, food security and food safety." USAID, however, defines it as "the ability of people, households, communities, countries and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.” It is worth mentioning that the concept has recently achieved its highest attention level at USAID as resilience was elevated to become one of the three core objectives for the U.S. Government's Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS).
According to a recent World Bank report, the total cost of foodborne disease in developing countries is about $110 billion ($95.2 billion for productivity loss and $15 billion for treating foodborne illnesses) per year. Building resilience — preventing or reducing shocks and stresses from undesirable food safety incidents/events — at different scales — including individual, household, community, systems, regions and countries — could significantly reduce these costs. To do this, there needs to be better integration of effective food safety systems in policies, programs and sectors (such as environment, food, agriculture and health, etc.). An effective food safety system must include food safety standards, regulations, guidelines and good practices; enforcement systems; inspection systems; innovation technologies; applied-based research; adequate monitoring and surveillance; rapid pathogens/contaminants detecting methods; risk analysis (including risk assessment, management and communication); education; training; traceability; recall systems; etc.
The following are a few examples where food safety systems helped strengthen resilience:
- In 2004, an aflatoxicosis outbreak in Kenya resulted in 317 illnesses and 125 deaths. Thereafter, the Kenyan Government adopted Aflasafe as a food safety intervention to minimize the negative health and economic effects of aflatoxin.
- In 2008, tomato was mistakenly connected to a Salmonella outbreak, with 1,400 illnesses in the US. Although the outbreak was later linked to fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico, the tomato industry in Florida developed good agricultural practices for tomato to prevent this from happening again.
- In 2008, over 300,000 Chinese infants were sickened, 50,000 were hospitalized and six died after consuming powdered milk contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used for producing plastic. Two people were executed and several sent to prison. This food safety incident shattered the confidence of people in the entire Chinese food supply. After this scandal, the “Chinese Food Safety Law” was established in 2009 and passed in 2015.
- In July 2011, a massive Listeria outbreak — associated with cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado — was responsible for 150 illnesses and 33 deaths. The two owners of the farm lost their business, received five years’ probation, six months of in-home detention, $150,000 each in restitution and 100 hours of community service. The FDA established the Food Safety Modernization Act in the same year.
- In 2011, a foodborne outbreak caused by Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O104:H4 — associated with fenugreek sprouts — in Germany quickly spread throughout Europe and elsewhere. The organic fenugreek seeds, used to produce the sprouts, were imported from Egypt. More than 4,000 people became ill, and 50 died. It was estimated that this event cost Egypt about $4.2 billion. It is believed that this incident encouraged the Egyptian government to develop a new food safety law, which the Egyptian parliament approved in 2017.
Development and humanitarian donors — in collaboration with partner countries, civil society, the private sector, NGOs and regional institutions — should integrate food safety into their programs to build or strengthen resilience in developing countries.