Jessica Mzinza, a tomato trader in the Kibera slum's Toi Market, in Nairobi, Kenya, March 7, 2013.

Opinion: National food safety policy and regulatory frameworks as a key pillar in effective food control systems

By Yergalem Taages

ADDIS ABABA – Ready access to safe and nutritious food is a basic human right. Food must be safe to not pose health threats to consumers or act as a barrier to trade and also to allow smooth functioning of the overall agri-food system that underpins economic development and food and nutrition security. Yet every year around the world, over 420 000 people die and some 600 million people – almost one in ten – fall ill after eating contaminated food.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the world’s highest per capita health burden posed by foodborne diseases, which disproportionately affects children with lasting impacts on their well-being and economic productivity. The problem negatively affects the region’s capacity to be competitive in regional and global agri-food markets. As per WHO’s estimates, an annual average of 91 million people in Africa consume contaminated food that renders them ill, and around 137,000 (about 30 percent of the global estimated) people die as a result of consuming contaminated food.

Nevertheless, despite the growing recognition of the potential role of food safety in the wider development context of Africa, the state of food safety in the region still remains an issue of concern. Without adequately addressing the challenges and having functional food control systems, African countries will not be able to effectively attain the objectives set in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

According to a FAO/IGAD joint food safety assessment exercise carried out recently in the IGAD region, most member countries do not have consolidated policies or laws that are necessary for formulation of efficient and effective food safety control systems. This explain the need for filling these gaps by strengthening the national food control capacities through development of national food safety, strategies and regulatory frameworks.

A national food control strategy enables countries to develop an integrated, effective, and dynamic food control system. It should provide better coherence in situations where there are several food control agencies involved, without an overall coordinating mechanism. In such cases, it prevents confusion, duplication of effort, inefficiencies in performance, and wastage of resources by defining the roles and responsibilities of each sector and actors along the food chain.

It is, therefore, crucial that countries prioritize creation of an enabling environment for food safety control through development and implementation of comprehensive food safety policies, laws and institutional frameworks that provide for food safety coordination mechanisms acceptable to all the actors in the food chain.

Equally crucial is transitioning for food control systems into governance mechanisms that foster sustainable agriculture and production of safe and nutritious foods and access to fair regional and global trade which eventually contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. As part of its mandate, FAO partnered with member countries and regional/sub-regional economic communities to improve food safety and control capacities including development of food safety polices and laws. FAO supports governments in drafting, amending or updating national food safety and quality laws, and implementing regulations to strengthen the system of food control and surveillance, in accordance with international law and best practice.

As vehicles for promoting regional trade, the African Union Commission and its Regional Economic Communities such as IGAD and EAC, need to establish mechanisms for development and harmonization of food policies, standards and regulations, as well as fora for developing regional positions on matters for discussion in international fora such as Codex. In line with this, FAO is currently working with IGAD in the development of its food safety regional strategy.

The need for active involvement of private sector associations in forming self-regulatory mechanisms through which they can monitor compliance with food safety standards or regulations and strengthen consumer participation in food safety related issues cannot be over-emphasized Consumer associations can serve as platforms to communicate food safety risks and challenges to food regulators and dealers. The role of consumers must also not be underestimated. Their level of awareness and knowledge with regard to the implementation of safe food handling, storage and preparation practices is a critical part in the whole food safety system. This means that several stakeholders must be included in the development of national food safety policies and regulatory frameworks.


The Author, Yergalem Taages, is a Food Security and Safety Officer at the FAO Sub regional office for Eastern Africa