World Food Safety Day and challenges from the farms

The need for clean, healthy food has been canvassed as a necessity for longevity. This was why global attention was focused on food safety throughout last week and up till now in Nigeria; SUNNY IDACHABA writes.

On June 7, this year, the whole world marked World Food Safety Day to remind everyone about the importance of safe and healthy food for human consumption.

It is worth knowing that food safety campaign plays a critical role in assuring that all consumables are safe at every stage of the food chain ranging from production to harvesting, processing, storage, distribution, preparation and consumption.

With an estimated 600 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually, it has been confirmed that unsafe food is a threat to human health as it affects the vulnerable and marginalised people, especially women and children as well as the large populations affected by conflict and migrants. 

Investigations by this reporter have shown that an estimated 420,000 people around the world die every year after eating contaminated food. Also, children under the age of five years are said to carry 40% of the food-borne disease burden with 125,000 deaths annually.

That is why the United Nations (UN) dedicates June 7 every year to create global awareness about food safety with a view to inspiring actions that can help to prevent, detect and manage food-borne diseases. It is also with a view to contribute to food security, human health, economic prosperity, agriculture, market access, tourism and sustainable development.

With the theme: ‘Food Safety, Prepare for the Unexpected,’ the global body says the action-oriented campaign would promote global food safety awareness; therefore it calls on countries, decision makers, private sector players, civil society groups, other international organisations and the general public to take actions for the safety of humanity.

How it was marked in Nigeria     

In Nigeria, the National Agency for Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) while contributing to the theme for this year admonished everyone to desist from storing cooked food in a refrigerator beyond three days.

The director-general of the agency, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, said it was an erroneous impression held by people that whenever cooked food is preserved in a refrigerator for days, it can still be healthy for consumption. Therefore in view of the need to avoid food-borne diseases, the NAFDAC boss asked Nigerians to desist from the practice and always strive to eat freshly prepared food as according to her, the campaign about food safety from the farm to the table is sine qua non to healthy living. 

Also, as part of events to mark that day, the federal government unveiled the revised National Policy on Food Safety and Quality as well as the inauguration of four technical working groups on food safety with the Federal Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, United States Department of Agriculture and other partners in attendance.

Health and social welfare minister, Prof. Ali Pate, said at the occasion that the groups would strengthen and harmonise Nigeria’s regulatory environment and risk-based food safety systems, while improving industry engagement in the national regulatory processes with a view to complying with international food safety standards.

He said, “The TWGs are focused on risk-based regulations, risk analysis in food and feed safety, food and sanitary and phyto-sanitary inspection, traceability and supporting technologies, education for all stakeholders and research.

“This year’s theme ‘Food safety: prepare for the unexpected’ is a clarion call to action; a reminder that vigilance is the guardian of our sustenance and unforeseen events that can compromise the integrity of our food supply. In the face of daunting challenges, our resolve remains unshaken. Preparedness is not just a watchword but our shield against the unpredictable tides of adversity.”

In her remarks, the programme manager of USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Kelly Scavella, stated that USDA-FAS was partnering with the Federal Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and other critical partners to help build food safety systems relevant to consumers, producers and regulators.

“Over the last decade, the Nigerian government has implemented important changes to bolster food safety by examining and enhancing critical components of the national food safety control system.

“Harnessing the expertise of the TWGs aligns with the core mission of World Food Safety Day and emphasises the importance of collaboration and innovation in safeguarding food and feed safety. As we commemorate this global initiative, the launch of these TWGs underscores Nigeria’s commitment to ensuring safe and reliable access to food in Nigeria,” Scavella said.

WHO’s report

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the way food is produced, stored, handled and consumed affects the safety of consumers. 

“Complying with global food standards, establishing effective regulatory food control systems including emergency preparedness and response, providing access to clean water, applying good agriculture practices (terrestrial, aquatic, livestock, horticulture), strengthening the use of food safety management systems by food business operators and building capacities of consumers to make healthy food choices are some ways in which governments, international organisations, scientists, the private sector and civil society work to ensure food safety,” it stated.

It noted further that, “Food safety is a shared responsibility between governments, producers and consumers. Everybody has a role to play from farm to table to ensure the food we consume is safe and will not damage our health. Through World Food Safety Day, WHO and FAO pursue efforts to mainstream food safety in the public agenda and reduce the burden of food-borne diseases globally.”

Food safety refers to practices that prevent contamination during the preparation, handling, and storage of food, ensuring it is safe for consumption. It is a key attribute and precursor to food quality, which encompasses the features of a food product that meet consumer expectations, such as texture, flavour appearance, and adherence to specifications. Both food safety and quality are crucial in any food-handling environment to ensure consumer’s health and value for money.

Past efforts at regulation     

Before now, there have been several attempts to safeguard food safety in Nigeria; for instance, in preparation for the passage of the Food Safety and Quality bill into law, the Federal Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in partnership with USDA, Food and Agriculture Export Alliance, University of Missouri’s Africa Food Safety Initiative and Nigerian Economic Summit Group have convened stakeholders prioritisation workshop in December 2022.

In 2023, the National Assembly passed the Food Safety and Quality Bill; however, while the 2023 election was drawing nearer and competing priorities delayed the passage of the bill, the competent authorities continued to advance the modernisation agenda by re-convening stakeholders for an expertise coordination workshop to be held in November 2023. It is, however, not clear if that workshop actually took place.

Recent efforts

Not only that, not too long ago, stakeholders in the agriculture value chain rose from a consultative workshop in Lagos with a resolve to tackle challenges in the sector. It was put together by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in collaboration with the Programme for Bio-safety Systems (PBS), representatives from Nigeria Customs Service, Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Federal Ministry of Agriculture and United States Department of Agriculture, among others.

The whole idea of the workshop was to take strategic steps towards ensuring that Nigerians are safe as far as intake of foods is concerned. According to the director-general of NBMA, Dr. Agnes Asagbra, the agency remains operationally meticulous in every process while carrying out its mandates to make foods, plants and the environment safe. 

“We are at the forefront of integrating innovative biotechnological advancements into our agricultural practices. The seeds and grains you bring to our tables are not just commodities; they result from rigorous research, dedication and a shared vision for a sustainable future.

“The National Biosafety Management Agency is committed to ensuring that these innovations in Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) meet the highest standards of safety and contribute positively to our environmental and economic landscapes while safeguarding our citizens’ health,” she noted.

The Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) representative at the workshop, Mrs. Adetule Adedoyin, re-affirmed the resolve of the service to prevent exotic pests and diseases from entering into the country as they ensure that all agricultural products are certified safe, fit and proper for import and export as well as safe for human consumption.

As it is, food safety is the responsibility of everyone to avoid deaths that are hitherto avoidable.