By Johnson Siamachira
Harare (New Ziana) -In developing countries such as Zimbabwe, unsafe food remains a threat to food and nutrition security and public health. Annually, 91 million people in Africa fall ill due to food-borne diseases. Of these, 127 000 will die, including children under five years, and the elderly, says the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations.
Food safety has also become a critical pre-condition for access to global food markets and increasingly, for high-value domestic markets in developing countries.
Unfortunately, food safety has never featured prominently on Africa’s development agenda. When it becomes an issue, the focus is mainly on high-value food commodities produced for the export market, while food safety in domestic markets has been neglected by governments and development partners. This must change.
Recent scientific research has shown that the health and economic effects of food-borne diseases in Africa are huge and rising, as urbanization and income growth push dietary changes and expose consumers to food safety hazards.
Microbial pathogens-especially Salmonella spp., toxigenic Escherichia coli, norovirus and Campylobacter spp – account for about 80 per cent of Africa’s foodborne diseases.
Despite the economic importance of agriculture in Africa, food commodities account for only 4 percent of the continent’s total exports – an indication why there is a poor food safety record.
In Zimbabwe, there are no quick solutions to the country’s food safety challenges. A comprehensive strategy that focuses on improving food safety awareness, practices and governance, is urgently needed.
To improve agriculture’s competitive edge in Zimbabwe, it is key to align food quality standards with the rest of the world while improving the efficiency of value chains.
If smallholder farmers cannot connect to increased markets, including exports, they will never be able to escape from the cycle of poverty.
“To push for high, more sustainable and nutritious food production in Zimbabwe, we must not lose sight of the importance of food safety and not just for health reasons,’’ warned Zimbabwe’s permanent secretary for Health and Child Care, Air Commodore Dr Jasper Chimedza.
He said this in a speech read on his behalf by the Ministry’s Chief Director for Human Resources, Dr Simon Nyadundu during an accreditation ceremony of the country’s Government Analyst Laboratory (GAL), which adopted ISO/IEC 17025:2017, a quality Management System for Analytical and Testing Laboratories in 2019.
GAL recently received the accreditation certificate after a successful assessment by the Southern African Development Community Accreditation Service.
Food safety in the country affects all actors across the value chain, including smallholder farmers who generally deal with informal markets – which are often lacking in health inspection equipment and sufficient resources to boost awareness on good practices.
The food control and regulatory system in Zimbabwe faces many challenges. For starters, the system is highly fragmented and has several entities in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, the Ministry of Agriculture and in local authorities. In addition, the system falls under several Acts, which fall under different government Ministries.
This results in coordination challenges and poses difficulties to ensure food safety throughout the entire food chain.
However, the system is controlled through measures such as import and export permits, inspections, licensing and registration.
The mandate of the Government Analyst Laboratory is to analyse samples of food and water and other samples submitted to it as well as fighting outbreaks such as the current cholera. The government laboratory is now producing international standards results, thanks to the ISO certification.
Zimbabwe – through the Ministry of Health and Child Care, has partnered with FAO to refurbish and revitalize GAL, with funding from the European Union under the umbrella Zimbabwe Agricultural Growth Program (ZAGP) under the Transforming Zimbabwe’s Animal Health and Food Safety Systems (SAFE) project. Running from February 2019 to December 2023, SAFE covers 30 selected rural districts and 18 ports of entry in Zimbabwe.
Speaking at the same event, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Zimbabwe and sub-regional coordinator for Southern Africa, Dr Patrice Talla said his organization is always ready to support all government efforts towards ensuring food safety for all the people, all the time.
Dr Talla also said FAO, through the SAFE project sponsored the accreditation process as part of its global mandate of supporting member countries to ensure food safety as a key aspect to improving food security and nutrition.
SAFE was jointly designed by FAO and the Department of Veterinary Services in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development. as well as the Department of Environmental Health in the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
The project focuses on building the capacity for animal disease control, sanitary and phytosanitary food safety services in the livestock and food processing and handling sectors. The overall objective of the project is to transform the country’s animal health and food safety systems for improved livestock productivity, food and consumer safety that enhance both domestic and international market access. This approach leads to improved health, trade and agricultural income in Zimbabwe.
Focusing on enhancing the country’s food safety systems, the SAFE project has enhanced the capacity for science-based food inspection through building the technical and functional capacity of environmental health practitioners for improved surveillance of food-borne diseases. The project also supported the Department of Environmental Health with food inspection and rapid test kits for testing presence of Aflatoxins B1, Salmonella, E.coli and Listeria in food.
As part of this process of work, the Environmental Health Technicians curriculum was reviewed in line with international best practices, the Central Veterinary Laboratory and GAL and Toxicology were supported with critical equipment for tests that meet international standards to enhance access of local producers to international markets and food establishments health guidelines were developed and adopted by the Ministry of Health.
President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, cautioned in 2017 that Africa’s annual food import bill – already worth US$35 billion- was estimated to jump to US$110 billion by 2025.
In this regard, appropriate capacity to meet food safety standards is urgently needed. For Zimbabwe, the country must implement better domestic food safety policies and support them with needed investment.
A ‘business as usual’ approach to food safety, such as a combination of post-outbreak firefighting, fragmented regulatory and ad hoc interventions will not help to solve the food safety threats in the country.
A combination of incremental and systematic measures within Zimbabwe government’s capacity, can flatten the curve of food-borne illnesses.