3 October 2005, Geneva/Rome - Food-borne diseases are a serious threat to people in Africa, especially Africans already weakened from devastating conditions such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, two UN agencies warned today at the first-ever Regional Food Safety Conference for Africa.
Some 200 food safety officials and experts from 50 countries are attending a 4-day conference held under the auspices of FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Safer food for better health
The meeting of food experts is expected to agree on ways and means to strengthen existing food safety systems to ensure safer food for better health and agricultural trade opportunities. Food being precious and difficult to access for many of Africa's poor, it must be safe for human consumption.
"Many African countries do not have adequate food security, resulting in a situation where at least 60 percent of the food supply is imported to supplement local production," according to a report prepared for the Food Safety Conference.
Because there is not an effective food safety regime in place in most countries of the region, the safety of imported food cannot always be assured, adding to the risk of widespread food contamination. Improved food safety would help reduce the 2 000 deaths estimated to occur every day in Africa from food and waterborne diseases.
Addressing the globalization of agricultural trade and the increasing threat of ill-health from contaminated food, the report calls on "governments, the private sector, consumers and others to work in a concerted manner in this shared responsibility of assuring food safety from farm to fork".
A plan of action for Africa
With this goal, the Regional Conference on Food Safety for Africa is expected to discuss an Africa-wide Strategic Plan of Action for Food Safety in an effort to reduce future threats to public health and international trade caused by contaminated food and food products that do not meet international quality and safety standards.
Focusing on the complete food production chain, the plan will devote special attention to areas where intervention can significantly lower the risk from food-borne disease. The Conference will include discussions on prevention and control of mycotoxins in staple African crops such as maize, groundnuts and dried fruits.
"Food and water transmit a variety of disease-causing agents which are at the origin of the high burden of diarrhoea cases. In Africa, these are estimated at up to four episodes per child per year," says Dr Chris Ngenda Mwikisa, Director of the Division of Healthy Environment and Sustrainable Development at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.
"Several devastating outbreaks of foodborne diseases such as cholera, salmonellosis, entero-haemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), hepatitis A and acute aflatoxicosis have occurred in a number of African countries recently. Already this year 34 000 cases of cholera due to contaminated water and food have been reported in 30 countries with more than 1 000 deaths. And we should remind that outbreaks are only the tip of the iceberg since many more sporadic cases go unrecorded," Mwikisa says.
"Building an effective food safety and quality regime throughout Africa has become an urgent necessity in order to save lives and create economic opportunity across the continent," says Hartwig de Haen, FAO Assistant Director-General.
"The failure of many African produced food products to meet international food-safety and quality standards hampers the continent's efforts to increase agricultural trade both intra-regionally and internationally, locking many farmers out of a chance to improve their economic well-being. Establishing pan-African food safety standards will not only save lives and improve the health of African people, it will go a long way towards helping Africa join in international trade and raise African living standards, particularly in rural areas where most of the poor are subsisting," de Haen says.
"Exchange of routine information on food safety and rapid access to information in case of emergencies is imperative" warns a report for the Conference. Systems ensuring this have proved to be very useful for an appropriate and timely management of food risks.
According to the UN agencies "the recently established International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) enables member states to exchange key information and be alerted when international food safety events occur; while the International Portal on Food Safety, Animal and Plant Health facilitates the access to existing standards and other official food safety-related information".
Participants in the Regional Conference on Food Safety for Africa held in Harare, Zimbabwe, come largely from regulatory bodies for food safety in the Ministries of Agriculture and Health in countries that are members of FAO and WHO. Representatives of independent food safety agencies and other ministries with responsibilities for food safety, and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representing industry, producers, trade and retail associations, and consumer groups are also attending.