Assuring Safe Food in Times of COVID-19

By Yergalem Taages Beraki*

ADDIS ABABA – Safe and nutritious food has wide-ranging positive impacts on human welfare and economic performance, leading to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those pertaining to ending hunger and poverty, and promoting good health and well-being.

The safety of food is also vital to the growth and transformation of agriculture, which is needed to feed the growing population in Africa, in order to spur economic transformation and prosperity, and to promote favorable integration of countries into regional and international markets.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 600 million people fall ill and 420 000 die every year from eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals.

The situation is more prevalent in Africa, where it is estimated that an annual average of 91 million people consume contaminated food that renders them ill, and around 137 000 people die as a result of consuming contaminated food.

The COVID-19 pandemic now poses a significant challenge on top of this picture of food safety risks and the already strained health, food and nutrition security and broad socio-economic conditions in Africa.

The pandemic is already affecting the food and agriculture sector. Trade between neighboring countries has already been affected and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement which was supposed to commence in July 2020 has been postponed because of the pandemic.

The Africa region could face a severe food security crisis, with agricultural production expected to contract between 2.6 and 7 percent. Food imports would decline substantially (up to 25 percent) due to a combination of higher transaction costs and reduced domestic demand.

The pandemic could compromise food safety and food control activities in two ways.

Firstly, it creates a shortage of labour/workers due to governments’ containment measures such as movement and transport restrictions. Food inspection services can be disrupted due to movement restrictions of inspection workers. This will affect both locally produced and traded food as well as imported foods from neighboring countries and international markets. The transport restrictions, quarantines, and trade disruptions are already affecting food safety and quality of agricultural produce, especially the highly perishable and nutritious food such as milk, meat, fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Secondly, food traders and transporters, if without adequate staffing and proper food hygiene practices and facilities, can enhance the transmission of the disease by putting unsafe food in the market. Consumption of raw or uncooked food can serve as media of transmission of the virus.

In order to address the problem of food inspection due to shortage of staff which occur because of movement restriction, it is important to develop a mechanism for remote verification as an interim measure until on-site verifications can resume; verifications with food businesses off-site, via a phone call or using online technology is important in this regard.

Keeping all workers in the food production and supply chains healthy and safe is critical to surviving the food supply crises. It is imperative for the food industry to reinforce personal hygiene measures to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces and food packaging materials becoming contaminated with the virus. Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, can be effective in reducing the spread of viruses and disease if used properly.

In addition, the food industry needs to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures and promote frequent and effective handwashing and sanitation at each stage of food production, processing, manufacture and marketing. These measures will help to protect spreading COVID-19 among workers, maintain a healthy workforce, and detect and exclude infected food handlers and their immediate contacts from the workplace.

Creating awareness among communities on the potential danger of consuming raw foods. In order to avoid contamination through food, as a general rule, consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, raw milk or raw animal organs should be handled with care to avoid cross-contamination with other uncooked foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables need to be thoroughly washed with potable water before consumption.

Strictly enforcing the Food Safety Management Systems (FSMs) is vital to manage food safety risks. Implementing key hygiene controls at each stage of the food processing, manufacture, and marketing chain for the prevention of food contamination is crucial.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) jointly with the WHO support global efforts to promote safe food. They are working together during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and have already developed a guidance for food businesses. The guidance note highlights measures to ensure that the integrity of the food chain is maintained and that adequate and safe food supplies are available for consumers.

During the time of COVID-19 crisis, that the joint effort and collaboration are critical; and all actors in the food value chain need to work together to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on food safety and food systems in general.


*Yergalem Taages Beraki is a Food Security and Safety Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) – Subregional Office for Eastern Africa.

Featured Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde