Safe and Nutritious Food: Fortifying Systems to Deliver at Scale
This post was written by Shawn K. Baker, the chief nutritionist for USAID.
For this year’s World Food Safety Day, the World Health Organization adopted the theme of “Safer Food, Better Health.” Earlier this year, the African Union adopted nutrition as its theme for 2022: “Year of Nutrition — Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent.” Additionally, safe, nutritious and resilient food systems were recurring themes last year at the United Nations Food Systems Summit and the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit. These themes are tied together by the need for investments in government institutions that develop evidence-based standards, regulations and inspection capacity, which can then bolster the private sector’s ability to meet safety and quality requirements. Fortifying these systems will allow for the delivery of nutritious and safe food at scale.
Lack of essential vitamins and minerals and unsafe food represent a heavy burden on human health and well-being and can lead to economic loss. Approximately two billion people worldwide suffer deficiencies in at least one essential nutrient, and these deficiencies are major contributors to increased mortality, disabilities and impaired cognitive development. Illness caused by unsafe food accounts for 420,000 deaths per year and significantly constrains the growth of low- and middle-income countries. According to some estimates, foodborne illnesses alone cost Africa $110 billion per year in lost productivity and medical expenses. Moreover, food adulteration costs the global economy between $30 to $40 billion per year, with Africa likely sharing the highest burden.
The shocks created by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis and conflict make these issues even more important. Pre-pandemic, three billion people worldwide could not afford a healthy diet, and that number is increasing as food prices rise and livelihoods are threatened. Russia’s war on Ukraine is the latest burden on struggling consumers, who once again face difficult decisions between quantity, nutrition and safety amidst rising food prices.
However, despite these shocks, there is good news. There are proven solutions for securing access to essential nutrients with food fortification and to improve food safety. Africa’s agrifood market is expanding, constantly improving and seizing regional trade opportunities. The African Union’s leadership on nutrition includes the development of a continental food safety strategy, and the region has been a leader on large-scale food fortification. One of the four priority areas for its Africa Year of Nutrition focuses on “Institutional capacity enhancement and enabling environment for intensified action and delivery of results and impact.” Food fortification and food safety go hand-in-hand and rely on similar systems and private sector capacity for effective implementation.
Delivering nutritious and safe food requires government institutions with strong food regulatory and enforcement capacity that can establish evidence-based standards and enable appropriate compliance. The private sector needs strengthened capacity and commitment and access to financing. Seizing the opportunities offered by increased attention to nutrition and food safety to fortify these systems is critical for meeting today’s challenges and building the food systems of the future.