One cannot talk about sustainable and resilient food systems without addressing food safety. Food security, nutrition and food safety are tortuously linked. Access to sufficient amount of nutritious and safe food is key to sustaining life and promoting sound health.
Unsafe food containing bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, cause more than 200 diseases — ranging from diarrhoea to cancer. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, that inordinately affects children, the elderly and the sick.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 600 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year. Africa has the world’s highest per capita incidence of food illnesses causing 91 million cases annually and resulting in 137,000 deaths.
Food-borne illnesses cost low- and middle-income countries $100 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses.
Even though there is no data specific to Kenya available, rest assured our numbers are troubling based on the incidences that have been sporadically detected and reported by the media over the years, from aflatoxin related illnesses to diarrhoea outbreaks and deaths.
It is therefore timely that as a society we are discussing a new piece of legislation — the Food and Feed Safety Control Coordinating Bill — that is expected to better manage food and feed safety issues in the country.
We must get it right with this Bill as it has direct health and economic implications. Perhaps no other law affects our way of life so directly.
The questions we should now be grappling with as we shape this legal framework are; What should an effective national food safety system look like? What should be the foundational principles anchoring this law and what would be the best implementation strategy?
The law we eventually develop to control food and feed safety must be coherent and connected to existing food laws.
Since food safety is key to health security, this law must therefore be aligned with the Big 4 Agenda on affordable health care, with emphasis on prevention and risk management.
The Bill sets out to establish the Office of the Food and Feed Safety Controller that will provide for effective coordination of competent authorities in the control of food and feed safety, and to establish county food and feed safety control coordinating committees.
The logical question then is; what coordinating powers and collaborative mechanisms will the Office of Food and Feed Safety Controller and the supporting competitive authorities require for seamless cooperation to effectively control food and feed safety in Kenya?
What will be the implementation strategy to help us tackle our food safety challenges for the next several decades?
Covid-19 has shown us clearly that we need a smarter food and feed safety system. In a survey conducted by the Global Alliance for Improved nutrition (GAIN) in 2021 in Kiambu and Machakos counties, 78 percent of food vendors experienced a change in their suppliers and increase in supplier prices, and relied on fewer suppliers.
There is always a food safety risk when as a food business you change suppliers whose food safety measures you are not familiar with, highlighting the disruptive nature of the pandemic that would need to be addressed by this Bill.
Kenya has the opportunity to leapfrog the process by learning from the best practices and mistakes of the more developed food safety systems globally. In my opinion, the law to be enacted and regulations thereof should be proactive, flexible and put focus on education, prevention, surveillance and response.
The food safety system should also intrinsically have mechanisms to periodically evaluate how well it is achieving its objective of provision of safe food, and adjust accordingly. At the same time, the implementation mechanism needs to leverage technology and digitsation.
The pandemic has brought about a change in consumer behaviours, disparities in the marketplace, and a rise in e-commerce, that would require a smarter food and feed safety system that can adapt and evolve.
The new law will need to address new business models, have strong predictive capabilities of anticipating outbreaks through data analytics, and be able to rapidly respond to these outbreaks when they occur.
This means leveraging emerging technology, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and sensor technologies as well as adopting highly sensitive, rapid detection and testing tools with capabilities to transmit real-time data.
A smarter system would be required to incorporate traceability processes that would for example allow for the tracing of a food product to its source but also link an outbreak to the root cause, and allow for the immediate initiation of isolation or recall processes to protect the public.
Aside from assuring safe food for the consumers locally, the new law will need to align with international standards such as FAO-WHO CODEX, considering the global nature of supply chains and commerce, and Kenya being agricultural export-oriented and a tourism hub.
We need to think globally but act locally.
Granted, a modernised and robust food safety system would require a sizable outlay of initial investments. But the long-term gains far outweigh the initial cost of implementation that may include equipping laboratories, acquisition of testing equipment and procuring services from apps developers, hiring and training of inspectors, auditors and other food handlers.
The role of government in this kind of system should be facilitative and not policing.
The main actors, in this case, the food industry and the consuming public as well as the primary producers (farmers), should be at the centre of implementing food and feed safety systems and driving the process.
The regulations and guidelines to be developed should incentivise these actors such that there is buy-in and compliance is voluntary as opposed to punitive enforcement. As we frame this Bill we also need to recognise the fact that the food industry is as diverse as we are.
The actors vary from the street vendor and small village cottage processor to five-star hotels and supermarkets and food manufacturing enterprises.
Dr Liavoga is a researcher and food safety expert based in Nairobi