There is no food security without food safety

By: Karsten Beekmann · 1 June 2021
Category: Food systems

This is part 6 of a blog series on food systems.

Simply put, if it isn’t safe, it isn’t food. Food security goes hand in hand with food safety. That is why a ‘safe-by-design’ check should be part of every programme aimed at increasing food security.

We tend to take food safety for granted, and are often not aware what happens ‘behind the scenes’ to ensure our food is safe. This is a luxury we can generally afford in many high-income countries, due to a high level of industrial governance, governmental oversight throughout the food production chains, and many measures to keep unsafe food from reaching the consumer.

But we must realize that not everyone can afford this luxury, particularly in low- and middle-income countries the situation can be very different. In places already plagued by hunger, often unsafe food also causes a tremendous public health and economic burden.

There are about 200 diseases caused by unsafe food, of which an estimated 600 million people fall ill, and 420 thousand people die every year globally. According to WHO, children under 5 years of age are especially affected.[1] These numbers alone should already paint a very clear picture of what is meant by “if it isn’t safe, it isn’t food”. And the consequences reach even further. The World Bank estimated the total productivity loss in low- and middle-income countries due to foodborne disease to cost $ 95.2 billion per year, and an additional $ 15 billion annually for treatment of foodborne illnesses.[2] What makes this pill even harder to swallow: foodborne disease can be prevented. But more on that later.

Food safety and food security: safe-by-design

There is a direct link between food safety, food security, and nutrition security. This means that it is not enough to produce sufficient food and ensure everyone has access to it, but the food must be safe and nutritious. And each of those three aspects – safety, security, and nutrition – are already complex enough by themselves, which is why a multi-disciplinary approach is needed. In this case, Wageningen University & Research teams up to ensure that the planned activities to increase food security will do so safely. We consider food safety already in the planning of the transitions and aim to reduce possible risks that might arise. We like to call this a safe-by-design strategy.

To be able to do this, knowledge is needed on potential hazards, where they enter and how they behave in the food production chain, and how to mitigate them. Just to make sure we are on the same page: a hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm, and the likelihood of that harm to occur is called a risk. Taking wind as an example, a light breeze is not very likely to be of concern. However, a strong storm can harm people in many ways. In this example wind itself is the hazard, and the risk to get injured risk depends on how strong the wind is, and for how long it lasts.

In food, there can be many different types of hazards. Some are biological, like parasites, viruses, and bacteria. Others are chemical, like naturally occurring toxins or manmade ones. To which extent these form a risk depends on many factors. In our projects in the Food Security and Valuing Water research programme of Wageningen University & Research we first focus on hazards and activities related to water quality and use relevant to the project areas.

Water and food safety

Water is essential in many steps throughout the food chain, from primary production to food preparation. It can carry a variety of hazards. Whether or not these turn into food safety risks depends on many factors that can be specific to the type of food, processing, and handling of the food.

Certain chemical contaminants can be naturally present in water, such as iodine in seawater, or heavy metals in sea and ground water. Other chemical contaminants can be specific to human activities, such as industry wastewater, pesticides and fertilizers and pharmaceuticals, like antibiotics in aquaculture or livestock farming, or residues in untreated sewage from human excretion. Fertilizers which end up in surface waters can also induce algal blooms, which can lead to the production and presence of natural cyanotoxins. The release of untreated sewage can also be of high concern due to the potential presence of pathogenic bacteria, such as Vibrio cholerae, Escherichia coli, or Salmonella enterica and viruses, such as hepatitis A virus or hepatitis E virus.

Furthermore, the presence and spread of antimicrobial resistant bacteria is an area of growing global concern. These resistant bacteria can be formed in livestock animals and humans treated with antibiotics, and be released via their excrements into surface water.

Whether or not chemical and biological hazards transfer to or accumulate in food during primary production depends on, for example, water treatment, which irrigation technique is used, and can be specific to the species cultivated or grown. Collecting knowledge on all critical steps allows us to support decision making, and to ensure that the intended transitions are safe by design. We are happy to exchange and share our lessons learned to help bring food security and food safety together.

World Food Safety Day

We would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to World Food Safety Day, which is celebrated on 7 June. This year’s theme is ‘safe food now for a healthy tomorrow’. We can proudly say that the activities in our projects are in this very spirit. Read more about World Food Safety Day 2021.

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