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The costs of unsafe food

Two weeks ago, I picked up a friend from the airport who came to visit for 10 days. All was well, and we enjoyed spending time together, visiting friends and dining out. Until one evening she was struck by food poisoning and she became very ill indeed in a very short period of time. We went to a clinic where she was given an IV treatment to rehydrate her and after some lab test she was given medication to deal with the cause. Until the evening of departure however, she remained ill and very weak indeed. As a result, a large part of her visit was spoilt, and a considerable amount of money was spent on medical costs. Now, this is the experience of only one person, and imagine the medical and economic costs caused by unsafe food at a larger scale, also in the perspective of the current high incidence of Acute Watery Diarrhoea (AWD).
A large proportion of these costs could be avoided by adopting preventive measures that improve how food is handled. The economic cost of unsafe food varies according to the level of economic development. It is important to recognize the need for effective investment, a better understanding of the cost of reducing unsafe food, and the achievable impact on the country’s food security, public health, and economy. Any food safety standards that are developed and implemented have associated costs for governments, industry and consumers. Nonetheless, the economic benefit and public health cost reduction resulting from reliable food safety systems outweigh the cost of food safety investment. Government not only needs to invest in food safety, but also invest strategically. This means investing in foundational knowledge, human resources, and infrastructure; realizing synergies among investments in food safety, human health, and environmental protection; and using public investment to leverage private investment. A transparent and constructive dynamic between food safety authorities and the food industry is fundamental in enabling public confidence in the food supply. The assurance of reliable and effective enforcement of regulation is fundamental to building a credible system. However, it is important to seek a productive balance between enforcement and facilitation and support to value chain actors to meet requirements to achieve their full potential. The public sector needs to put in place a set of enabling policies and provide public goods that create the enabling environment to foster private sector investment. The public sector can also support clustering of agribusinesses within specific geographic areas (e.g. technology parks) with assured infrastructure and access to output and input markets. Investment flows into value chains in which small-holder producers and processors are involved (e.g. as raw material suppliers) can be stimulated by improving coordination in the chain through strengthening groups that bring these actors together, while also building their technical and managerial capacity to meet market requirements.
In previous decades, government and donor investments in food safety in low and middle-income countries often focused on exports and formal sector food production and retail. This was driven by the economic benefits of export and the belief that modernization of the food system would improve productivity and deliver safer food and more benefits to workers. While both export sectors and formal food businesses remain key to many
countries’ development strategies, recent years have seen increasing evidence of the huge health and economic burdens falling on domestic consumers who primarily access food, especially perishable, higher-nutrient produce, from informal outlets and distribution channels. A broad-based food safety strategy is needed which gives balanced attention to trade and domestic matters, and, for the latter, covering food safety risks in formal and informal markets. Food safety has complex bidirectional linkages with nutrition, livelihoods and equity. For example, unsafe food is associated with stunting and malnutrition and predisposes people to gastro-intestinal illness and affects the most vulnerable people who have limited food choices and often rely on informal markets. Concerns about food safety may push people away from fresh produce and towards low-nutrient, highly processed foods, with adverse long-term health consequences. In low and middle -income countries, hundreds of millions of people, many of them women, depend on food production, processing, and retail for their livelihoods. Wherever possible, food safety interventions should act to secure rather than threaten these livelihoods.
The image of Ethiopia has changed much over the past few decades, from a country struck by drought and starvation, to a country with substantial economic growth and capable to deal with the challenges of climate change and related risks. We receive more visitors than ever before, including tourists but even more delegates from organizations and foreign countries that come and attend international meetings in the capital of the Africa Union. We don’t want that image to be weakened by illness, food waste and rejects because of unsafe food production and consumption.

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