Understanding the burden of foodborne disease to ensure food safety in Ethiopia

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By Beamlak Tesfaye and Theodore Knight-Jones

More than half a billion people fall ill every year from the food they eat around the world. As a result, ensuring food safety remains a major challenge in both developing and developed countries.

As we celebrate the World Food Safety Day on 7 June 2021, it is important to highlight the importance of understanding the burden of foodborne disease and how it affects us. Foodborne diseases -those diseases contracted from consuming contaminated food and drinks-affect us in many ways. Commonly resulting in vomiting or diarrhea, the consequences can often be far more severe. In fact, foodborne diseases result in almost half a million deaths a year globally, particularly affecting children.

As well as deaths and illness, foodborne disease has a massive financial impact on households and the wider national economy, with many people unable to work while they are sick, and often having to spend money on treatment. Africa bears the largest per capita burden from foodborne disease: 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.

Although global and regional estimates of disease burden are useful the availability of reliable country-level estimates is essential to guide efforts to improve the situation, including for increasing public awareness and mobilizing political commitment and resources to combat foodborne diseases.

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), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Government Department for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the CGIAR Agriculture for Nutrition and Health research programme.

The project works with partners to provide estimates of the incidence of key foodborne diseases in Ethiopia and provide a better understanding of the cost of foodborne disease, how these diseases manifest and how they can be controlled. It also develops and tests a novel but simple, and practical approach to improving food safety. This includes increasing consumer knowledge of what food is safe to purchase and through that use consumer demand for safer food to drive improvement in the safety of foods for sale in food markets. Support will also be provided to food traders to improve food safety, and training will be provided to government specialists, and regulators working in food safety.

The project’s ongoing activities in relation to estimating the burden of foodborne disease include:

  • Producing national estimates of the burden of certain foodborne diseases for Ethiopia. The result will be out shortly. This includes estimating risks and burden of foodborne disease for key germs from chicken and tomatoes.
  • The cost-effectiveness of different food safety control measures is also being assessed to produce a list of feasible and affordable interventions to reduce food safety risks.
  • The project will conduct food surveys to measure food contamination levels with germs and pesticides.

Food safety is one of the key elements of ILRI’s research portfolio. Our approach to food safety is risk-based, generating evidence and food safety solutions, identifying threats, and building the capacity of both policymakers and the public to tackle these threats.