By Tania Lozansky
It is one of the world’s most underreported public health issues.
Yet for hundreds of millions of people across the developing world, the risk of unsafe food is a daily fact of life.
Every year, that risk becomes unpleasant reality for at least 600 million people in the form of foodborne disease, according to the World Heath Organization. An estimated 420,000 subsequently die from their illnesses. Foodborne disease is most common in countries where malnutrition rates are already high and food security low, compounding suffering.
As the COVID-19 crisis subjects the global food supply chain to unprecedented strains, solving these challenges and ensuring safe food for all is more important than ever.
The good news is that food safety issues are overwhelmingly preventable when addressed systematically, and the business case for doing so is undeniable. The new edition of IFC’s Food Safety Handbook — our first since 2016 — draws on our long experience in helping the private sector do exactly that.
The Handbook contains a comprehensive, up-to-date listing of primary food safety legislation, training guidelines, and mandates by the Global Food Safety Initiative.
The Handbook outlines how companies can demonstrate their legal compliance with safety requirements and the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles. Developed for NASA to ensure food safety during its first manned space missions, HACCP originated in an unforgiving environment where risks needed to be proactively identified and comprehensively addressed. Today, HACCP is the basis for nearly all modern food safety regulations and guidelines.
Implementing food safety measures is essential to any food company’s future. Firms that establish rigorous food safety systems are significantly better placed to expand and attract investment, and to gain entry to lucrative export markets. In a series of surveys carried out between 2010 and 2018, 27 IFC clients credited food safety assistance with a combined $478 million in increased sales and $564 million in investments.
Fundamentally, however, food safety is about risk management. A single instance of food contamination can ruin the reputation of an entire brand. This risk holds true for developing economies. In one example, a wave of fatal food poisonings led to prolonged online outcry last year in Kenya. The incident demonstrated that local media and consumers in developing markets are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding better food safety.
By appealing to audiences eager for change, companies can build customer loyalty and protect the integrity of their brand. They can also make genuine contributions to overall prosperity and public health. In its Safe Food Imperative report, the World Bank estimates that the annual economic cost of unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries amounts to $110 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year.
Improvements are only possible, however, if a food operator can truly enact change. IFC’s Handbook provides options for addressing numerous barriers to employee participation in food safety practices, and can be powerfully paired with IFC’s free online hygiene courses.
Ultimately, however, food safety begins with committed leadership. We find a persistent, step-by-step commitment from management is often the most important factor for motivating employees to observe safer food practices. Leadership must also be open to innovation, especially in developing economies where food overwhelmingly originates in unregulated smallholder farms, and is bought by most domestic consumers in informal markets.
Consider Ethiopia meat producer Luna Export, which IFC advised on food safety and which recently received an award from the Global Food Safety Initiative for its improvements to food safety in its meat supply chain. Sourcing animals from a network of pastoral and smallholder suppliers, Luna has introduced modern sanitation techniques and trained staff on food safety and animal welfare practices — improvements that were essential to securing lucrative export markets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
No single solution can eliminate the developing world’s foodborne disease burden. Change requires action from the full spectrum of stakeholders — public and private, formal and informal, local and international, producer and consumer.
Nevertheless, the link between safer food and better business is increasingly recognized by food industry players. By investing in better food safety, they have the power to achieve results that are good for people and for business growth.
Tania Lozansky is the Global Head, Advisory for Manufacturing Agribusiness and Services at the International Finance Corporation.