Food Safety: A Pillar of Food Security
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences. To achieve secure food systems, the interwoven and complex relationships between nutrition and food safety must be understood. While fresh vegetables and animal products are highly nutritious foods promoted for food security, these food items are most susceptible to contamination, leading to foodborne disease. It is important to highlight linkages between nutrition outcomes and food safety as key components to the food security pillars of availability, utilization and access.
Food availability refers to the physical existence of food, determined by levels of food production, food stocks and net trade. As demands for safe food shift, supply chains are impacted and food safety threats can arise throughout the value chain. For example, production and processing technologies influence food security by impacting availability, but these methods are also directly tied to food safety. Processing can improve food safety, such as drying foods to reduce moisture content and prevent bacterial growth. However, processing can also introduce new contaminants or pathogens into the food supply. Moreover, unsafe handling or storage can increase risk of foodborne illness. Lack of standardized food safety regulations can further complicate trade and food availability by requiring additional time and funds for repeat safety testing.
Utilization refers to the way the body uses the various nutrients in food. Sufficient energy and nutrient intake, coupled with proper biological utilization of consumed food, determines an individual’s nutritional status. Optimal nutrition, a key component of food security, may increase resilience to foodborne disease. On the other hand, foodborne illness caused by unsafe food can have deleterious effects on health and nutrition by impairing nutrient absorption, growth and development. For example, environmental enteric dysfunction (EED), a state of intestinal inflammation in response to enteric pathogens from unsafe foods, leads to gut dysregulation associated with reduced delivery, absorption and utilization of nutrients, ultimately leading to nutrient deficiencies. Unfortunately, these pathogens are most likely to impact the most nutritionally vulnerable populations, including infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals.
Lastly, an individual must have physical, social and economic access to sufficient resources to acquire food in appropriate quantity, quality and diversity to ensure a nutritious diet. Access can be impacted by income, food prices, markets and food distribution within the household. Food security considers the affordability of diet choices, understanding that consumers might have to make purchasing decisions based on trade-offs between nutrition, safety, quantity and price. To increase affordability, foods of potentially lower quality and safety may be diverted to markets serving poorer consumers, increasing access along with increasing risk of foodborne illness among already vulnerable populations. These purchasing behaviors are also influenced by avoidance of foods that may have previously caused illness. Consumer concerns over food safety and price may lead to the purchase and consumption of processed and packaged foods that are less nutritious, but may be viewed as safer.
A prerequisite for nutritious foods
If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food. As development professionals, we should continue to embed food safety within food security frameworks and programming. Secure food that is safe to consume must both be prioritized, and most importantly, the nature of their linkages should bear greater investment. The Feed the Future program, EatSafe: Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food, explores these linkages in traditional markets. The individuals most vulnerable to food insecurity in low- and middle-income countries frequently shop at traditional markets, which often lack proper safe food standards or practices. EatSafe recognizes that interactions between vendors and consumers in traditional markets are a pivotal leverage point to understand risk perception, improve food safety knowledge and behaviors, and promote food security by empowering consumers to demand safe and nutritious food. Food safety underpins the pillars of food security because if it isn’t safe, it isn’t secure.
This blog was made possible through support provided by Feed The Future through USAID, under the terms of Agreement #7200AA19CA00010. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S. Government.