Food safety: How can consumers make a difference?

ILRI/Geraldine Klarenberg).

African food systems are dominated by informal markets, typically open-air markets found at designated sites and street corners, which often have poor hygiene and are subject to limited or poor regulation. Occasionally there are calls for these informal markets to be banned, but most consumers depend on them as they are more accessible and affordable than formal markets.

As we celebrate World Food Safety Day on 7 June 2020, it is crucial that governments recognize the importance of better food safety in informal markets. One way to encourage them to take food safety seriously is by harnessing the power of consumer demand.

Foodborne diseases cause a massive health burden and remain a persistent impediment to socio-economic development. The World Health Organization estimates that close to 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die every year from foodborne diseases worldwide. Children under five years of age make up 125,000 of those deaths.

Africa bears the largest per capita burden of foodborne diseases. Every year, more than 91 million people fall ill and 137,000 lose their lives, a toll comparable to the continent’s losses from major infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

In Ethiopia, as in other developing countries, most consumers buy their food from informal markets, attracted by their low prices, freshness, availability of local products and credit services. However, consumers are concerned about the safety of the food they buy from these markets, and they show this in their purchasing behaviour. Research has found that consumers would pay 5–15% more for safety-assured products.

Furthermore, demand for food safety increases with economic development, rising income, urbanization, increased media coverage and education level. The current COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers more conscious of the safety of the food they buy and eat.

The Government of Ethiopia is working to increase the use of appropriate food safety assurance systems to ensure food quality and safety, but challenges include limited infrastructure and human capacity, such as laboratory facilities and trained personnel. A further challenge is that consumers often cannot detect unsafe food.

In contrast, food products developed for export markets receive considerable attention and are subject to higher standards of food safety. Decision-makers understand that meeting international food quality and safety regulatory requirements is a must for building trust among foreign trading partners.

This success has led to attempts to directly adopt some export food safety approaches for food products marketed in the informal market. However, since the settings are so different these approaches rarely work.

An alternative approach that is showing considerable promise is to harness consumers’ concerns about food safety to create greater demand for safe food. This simple approach requires educating consumers and increasing the awareness and capacity of food retailers and producers.

Urban food markets in Africa: Incentivizing food safety using a pull-push approach is a research project led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. It develops and tests a novel but simple and practical approach to improving food safety: building consumer demand for safe food, traders’ ability to deliver it and regulator capacity to support it. It is, in short, a pull-push approach.

For the success of this approach, consumers need to be better informed on safe food including choice, purchase, storage and preparation. In addition, traders and producers need to be supported to develop their capacity to provide safe food and regulators need advice to create an enabling environment.

While regional estimates of the incidence of foodborne diseases are available, less is known at the country level. This project will also provide estimates of the incidence of key foodborne diseases in Ethiopia and provide a better understanding of the cost of foodborne diseases, how these diseases manifest and how they can be controlled.

Food safety is one of the key elements of ILRI’s research portfolio. Our approach to food safety is risk-based, identifying foodborne hazards, generating evidence, developing solutions and building the capacity of policymakers to use risk-based approaches to improve food safety in informal markets.

This feature article for World Food Safety Day was written by Beamlak Tesfaye, a communications officer at ILRI, and Theo Knight-Jones, a senior scientist at ILRI. It was originally published by The Reporter.

Visit the ILRI World Food Safety Day 2020 landing page for more information on our research on food safety in informal markets.