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Food scares: Agrifood systems everywhere need greater cooperation and investments in safer foods and farming


This infographic was created by IFPRI using ILRI facts and figures sourced from Simeon Kaitibie, Amos Omore, Karl Rich, Beatrice Salasya, Nick Hooten, Daniel Mwero, and Patti Kristjanson, ‘Policy Change in Dairy Marketing in Kenya: Economic Impact and Pathways to Influence from Research’, in Changing dairy marketing policy in Kenya: The impact of the Smallholder Dairy Project, Science Council Brief Standing Panel on Impact Assessment No. 28, 2008.

An interesting, if scary, read is chapter 6 of the recently launched flagship report of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI): The 2014–2015 Global Food Policy Report.

The chapter, on reducing and managing food scares, is co-written by Delia Grace, a veterinary epidemiologist and food safety expert at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya, and John McDermott, a former deputy director general for research at ILRI who now directs the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based in Washington, DC, USA.

What’s so scary? Have a look.

Foodborne disease events in 2014
‘In 2014, as in previous years, foodborne disease received much media and policy attention. In Denmark, an outbreak of listeriosis associated with pork sausages killed 12 people, and the small firm producing the sausage meat was closed down.

‘In Canada, revised estimates of the burden of foodborne disease suggested that one in eight Canadians is affected each year. More than 90 percent of this burden is caused by just four pathogens and, as is often the case, most (three out of four) of the pathogens responsible are transmissible between animals and people (zoonotic). In the United Kingdom, a report on a major food fraud scandal that broke out in 2013 revealed how a highly competitive and underregulated industry allowed firms to adulterate beef with horsemeat, which although posing no threat to human health did undermine general confidence in the food system.

‘Meanwhile, cholera—which is both water- and foodborne—broke out in the Cameroon, Cuba, Ghana, and South Sudan. For Cuba, it was the first outbreak in more than a century. The government of Ghana responded to its national outbreak by attempting to ban street food vending.

‘In China, trading centers in Hunan came to a standstill when cadmium was found in rice, a legacy of cultivation in polluted soils. In a separate incident, thousands of dead pigs were reportedly dumped in rivers and reservoirs, further undermining trust in the safety and wholesomeness of pork. Problems were not confined to the indigenous industry. An American-owned meat factory operating in China was found selling out-of-date and tainted meat to clients, including McDonald’s and Starbucks. McDonald’s expects that this will reduce the company’s global earnings by US$0.15–0.20 per share.

‘Across the strait, a scandal in Taiwan erupted over the use of “gutter oil”—recycled oil from restaurant waste and animal byproducts. The premier of Taiwan apologized and the chief executive officer of the Taiwanese company responsible was arrested. As 2014 drew to an end, the largest-ever outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in West Africa was ongoing. The most likely initial source of this outbreak was exposure to bats.’

But authors Grace and McDermott also reported some good news.

‘Other events of 2014 were more in keeping with the overall long-term progress being made around the globe in better managing infectious diseases—advances that have resulted from better education, information, technology, and institutions. For instance, data from the Global Burden of Disease report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June 2014 showed that diarrheal disease in 2012 decreased by 38 percent from the year 2000. In 2014 technologies to better manage high-priority diseases continued to be developed and released.

‘One example is the development of encapsulated fecal transplants for Clostridium difficile. This unpleasant disease has increased rapidly in the last few decades, and food is considered a potential transmission route. As much as 90 percent of cases that do not respond to antibiotic treatment improve when feces from healthy people are transplanted to the victim. Going forward, this sometimes-difficult treatment process will be facilitated by encapsulating the feces to be transplanted in an easy-to-swallow pill.

‘Food safety reform took place in several countries, notably Taiwan, which created a food safety agency, and the United States, which began implementation of its 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act—the country’s most sweeping reform for food safety in 70 years. High-level policy coordination on food safety included an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meeting on the future of agriculture, which identified food safety as a major concern, and a World Trade Organization workshop on risk analysis for food safety, which summed up the progress and challenges since the previous workshop in 2000. WHO released preliminary results of a reference group study on foodborne disease attribution, and a book was published covering the results of a decade of CGIAR research on food safety in the informal markets of Africa. [For the latter, see Despite contamination concerns, Africa must embrace ‘wet markets’ as key to food security, 27 Jan 2015, Managing the most nutritious, and riskiest, foods in the informal markets of developing countries, 11 Apr 2015, and New book presents research findings on food safety in Africa’s traditional meat, milk and fish markets, 13 Feb 2015.]

Three worlds of food safety concerns
‘The notable food safety events of 2014 summarized above illustrate both the complexity and the diversity of food safety issues.  From these examples we can identify three “worlds” characterized by different food safety concerns:

  • Developed economies, where foodborne diseases are of high concern but impose relatively small health burdens
  • Least developed economies, where foodborne diseases, although prevalent, are not among the highest priorities of public health officials
  • The emerging economies, where foodborne diseases are both highly prevalent and highly prioritized . . . .’

The authors then examine each of these in this chapter.

Grace and McDermott conclude: ‘A series of high-profile foodborne disease events, along with concerns over the ecological and animal welfare impacts of agriculture, has led consumers in developed and emerging economies to become increasingly wary of industrial agrifood systems and their products. . . .

A positive evolution of agrifood systems will require better governance and continued technological innovation. Food safety and prevention of disease emergence from agroecosystems are global public goods requiring international cooperation and investments in safer foods and agriculture by the international community as well as national governments.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: 20 Apr 2015: This article, first posted on 16 Apr 2015, misstated the figure for the burden of foodborne illness in Canada. Revised estimates of the burden of foodborne disease suggested that one in eight—not one in four—Canadians is affected each year. The text above has now been corrected.

Read the whole (interesting) chapter 6: Reducing and managing food scares, by Delia Grace (Flagship 3 leader, ILRI) and John McDermott (director, IFPRI), who both work for the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

Read the whole 2014–2015 Global Food Policy Report, 2015, which is the fourth in a series of annual flagship publications from IFPRI. Findings from this year’s report were discussed in a two-hour high-level panel discussion on ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 30 Mar 2015. This year’s IFPRI report focuses on helping smallholder farmers succeed in farming or find other economic opportunities; mitigating risk to vulnerable populations with well-designed and targeted social protection programs; integrating efforts to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene into nutrition-supporting policy priorities; the role of middle-income countries in achieving global zero hunger and malnutrition; food safety and preventing food-borne disease; building resilience and food security in conflict-affected countries; and how smallholder fisheries can contribute to food security.

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