By Lynnette Neufeld
Here is my take of a webinar I moderated on August 6, 2020. The webinar was about Food Safety and Nutrition: how are they connected, and why does it matter?
It was the first of a series of the USAID-funded Evidence and Action Towards Safe Nutritious Foods (EatSafe) webinars. I lead the Knowledge Leadership team for The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), which hosted the event and is the home for EatSafe. We invited panellists to explore the links between food safety and nutrition — particularly within the context of informal or ‘wet’ markets where the most vulnerable consumers tend to purchase their food.
There are four cornerstones of food security — nutrition, food safety, access and sufficient supply. For many years, food security meant not being hungry. Today, we’ve moved well beyond that: Food security is not only about not being hungry, it is about being nourished, and free from food-borne illness. It focuses on “good food” – that which is safe and nutritious, setting the foundation for healthy lives and allowing people to reach their potential.
In this webinar we explored the links between food safety and nutrition. People can only be well nourished if nutritious food is safe to eat, available, and affordable. That is the first takeaway.
The second takeaway is that there are many evidence gaps: How do we ensure the safety of nutritious foods for consumers, and particularly among low-income earners? How can we shape markets to be safe even where regulation and compliance with food safety standards requires strengthening? There are many gaps in the evidence base about how to ensure an adequate, affordable supply of safe nutritious foods — and particularly, how can we substantially increase consumer awareness and demand for safe nutritious foods?
And then the third takeaway, is the fact that the population that is most vulnerable to malnutrition is also the most vulnerable to food safety concerns. So, we have a double incentive to address those issues simultaneously. The food safety and nutrition communities need to work much closer together to deliver good food for all; this was the first in a series of webinars aimed at doing just that.
If one is malnourished, one’s immune system cannot operate as well as it should. The malnourished within a population therefore, may be particularly at risk when it comes to the ability to cope with unsafe food. At the same time, exposure to unsafe food and all of the associated health impacts such as diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses, can further compromise the nutritional status of individuals. This is because illnesses don’t only affect a population’s ability to consume food, but also their body’s ability to utilize the nutrients in those foods. It is a vicious cycle: increased exposure to unsafe food increases the risk of malnutrition.
Another important consideration is that the most nutritious, fresh foods — vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, milk and fish —are the most vulnerable to food safety concerns. Food that has undergone multiple different processing, packaging and preserving measures may be safer, but it isn’t necessarily nutritious.
It is the most nutritious fresh foods — that is, the most perishable — that EatSafe is trying to build demand and ensure safety for.
According to keynote speaker Dr Kelley Cormier, Food Safety Division Chief, Center for Nutrition at USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security at USAID, 1 in 10 people develop foodborne illnesses from the consumption of unsafe food. Every year USD 110 billion is lost owing to healthcare costs and the lost productivity associated with foodborne illnesses.
With a generous contribution from USAID, GAIN has been asked to lead the EatSafe consortium along with, The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and Pierce Mills Media. Our aim is to generate evidence to inform the design of approaches to generate demand for and shape forma and informal markets for safer nutritious foods, then test those approaches and measure their results.
EatSafe was established, not only to encourage consumers to eat good food, but also to empower them to demand the safety of nutritious foods. We will explore gender dynamics among consumers and vendors to ensure that food safety interventions are most effectively targeted and are responsive to gender dynamics in the market. At its core, EatSafe is working with vendors and consumers in informal markets, using the power of consumer demand to make safe nutritious food a clear value proposition. Through this we will be contributing to the availability and affordability of good food, for all.
Although GAIN has long been concerned about the safety of nutritious foods — and has addressed this in several initiatives (e.g. food safety training for SMEs as part of our Marketplace for Nutritious Foods program) — EatSafe is the first dedicated food safety for nutritious foods programme at GAIN. It uniquely begins with the consumer, and perceptions of the food environment where she purchases her food.
The advent of the COVID crisis is making it increasingly challenging for low-income consumers. The original mandate of EatSafe was to generate demand for safe and nutritious food through a phased programme that starts with research to generate the evidence concerning what interventions, in markets, with consumers will be most effective. All over the world however, but most particularly in low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa, markets have had to close down, making it difficult for consumers and especially those with low-incomes to purchase high quality and affordable food.
Supply chains are also being disrupted — harvesting, transport, storage, and processing – are all being affected by the actions taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
All panelists agreed that managing through this pandemic will require adjustments to business and market architecture models. The current situation prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to examine the risks that exist within the system to better prepare for a future pandemic or other major disruption to food systems. There is a great deal of talk about ‘building back better,” but we need evidence in order to understand what this will entail and to take it beyond the jargon to the concrete actions. EatSafe’s COVID Response work is listening to the consumers and vendors to better understand their perceptions on what safe food is, and what makes a market safe. This information is being fed into the design of those concrete actions.
This is probably not the last pandemic we’ll see in the history of humankind, but we must ensure consumers don’t lose confidence in informal markets.
The pandemic has only made the mandate of EatSafe more relevant!
This thought-leadership piece was penned as a contribution to the Good Food For All series. Good food is nutritious and safe to consume, allowing people to prosper and reach their fullest potential. Good food makes progress possible.