Nutrition and food safety are inextricably interconnected. Achieving optimal human health and wellbeing requires that people be both well nourished and free from foodborne disease — and that depends on them having access to diverse nutritious foods that are also safe to eat. Despite this clear logical link in theory, the connections between food safety and nutrition often go unnoticed in practice. Instead, researchers, implementers, and policymakers often work on the issues in silos, without considering the implications of food safety for nutrition (and vice versa).
A new paper published in Global Food Security from EatSafe explores the linkages between food safety and nutrition — and also suggests ways in which better integration of the two issues could take place within policy and programming.
The paper lays out four groups of causal pathways that may link food safety and nutrition as well as examples of mechanisms that may operate within these pathways:
Health and physiology
Foodborne disease often involves symptoms such as reduced appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea, which can lead to decreased intake and/or absorption of nutrients in the body. These symptoms also are linked to stunting. This, in turn, can increase the risk of undernutrition. Foodborne illness can also increase nutrient needs. Exposure to certain foodborne hazards can impair chemical reactions responsible for the body’s utilization of nutrients. Nutrition also has physiological linkages with foodborne disease; optimal nutrition can enhance resistance to disease, whereas, over time, poor nutrition can increase susceptibility to or severity of certain diseases.
If consumers fear that a food may be unsafe, they may avoid it. Many of us have probably experienced this in terms of short-term aversion to a food after getting sick from it or after hearing about a disease outbreak. Prolonged avoidance could have potential consequences for nutrition, particularly because some of the most nutritious foods also pose the greatest food safety risk (e.g., animal-source foods, fresh vegetables). Consumer behavior related to food safety could also impact nutrition through other channels, such as through changes to the household food budget. In addition, food safety risk-mitigation practices can affect time available for other tasks.
Supply chains and markets
Food safety actions in the supply chain, such as inspections or recalls, may alter food availability and prices, impacting consumers’ choices and thus their nutrition. Storage and processing practices within a supply chain may be aimed at improving safety but could also affect nutrient levels — positively or negatively. For example, fermentation, high-heat treatment, drying, and preserving with salt are all types of processing that aim to improve safety or shelf life but can also affect nutrient content. Finally, nutritious foods known to be contaminated could be diverted to markets serving poorer consumers, making those foods more accessible to them — but also less safe. Linkages also run from nutrition to food safety. For example, food processing aimed at improving nutrition (e.g., fortification) offers an opportunity to simultaneously improve food safety (e.g., through equipment installation and process upgrading).
Policy and regulation
Context-appropriate and achievable food safety standards could incentivize greater supply of nutritious foods as demand for foods previously avoided as risky increase. In contrast, strict standards could reduce supply. At the extreme, safety-driven diversion of food products, such as recalling food, could reduce the supply of nutritious food, increasing price and decreasing access.
However, if consumers come to trust in food safety compliance, that could increase their willingness to consume foods previously considered at higher risk, likely improving dietary quality. Nutrition policies or other interventions that increase demand for a nutritious food that currently poses a food safety risk could increase the foodborne disease burden if appropriate food safety measures are not also put in place.
While there is strong evidence to support the physiological linkages, the rest of these pathways are more speculative, with little evidence available to verify their existence or relative strength. This highlights an important research gap for the nutrition and food safety community, jointly, to work to fill going forward. Even in the absence of such evidence, considering potential interlinkages between food safety and nutrition when designing policies and programming could help to maximize synergies between the two goals and avoid unintended negative impacts.
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.