Beef and pork sellers in Maputo's traditional market

Traders in beef and pork meat at the Xipamanine traditional market in Maputo, Mozambique (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, informal markets play an important role in supplying most of the meat, milk, eggs and fish that poor people depend on for their nourishment.

Informal markets are those where traditional processing and products predominate and where traders are often unlicensed and do not pay tax.

Examples include street food markets, milk hawking systems, wet markets for pork, backyard poultry systems and artisanal production of cheese and other fermented milk products.

Despite the important role of Africa’s informal food markets in providing nutrition, employment and income to millions of people, these markets are often not subject to effective health and safety regulation.

Several approaches to food safety in informal markets have focused on food-borne hazards, with a tendency to adopt stringent international food quality standards with little regard for local contexts.

On the other hand, risk-based approaches to food safety do not just consider the presence or absence of food-borne hazards, but go further to assess whether there are certain practices that can minimize the health risks presented by the hazards.

Take, for example, the case of raw milk which is often sold informally in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

It is well known that raw milk is a good medium for microbial growth and is prone to microbial spoilage if not cooled immediately after milking.

Pathogenic species like E. coli often occur naturally in raw milk. However, most consumers in Africa routinely boil milk before they drink it, a simple practice that effectively kills any milk-borne pathogens, thus rendering the milk safe to drink.

A hazard-based approach to food safety that focuses solely on the hazard (E. coli in raw milk) would quickly condemn the milk as ‘unsafe for human consumption’.

However, a risk-based approach that considers risk assessment (E. coli is present in raw milk and causes disease), risk management (boiling of raw milk) and risk communication (educating consumers to boil milk before drinking it) is more appropriate as it is based on evidence of potential harm and not perceptions.

The subject of food safety in informal markets in Africa will be among several topics to be discussed during a side event by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on the first day of the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week which takes place on 15-20 July 2013 in Accra, Ghana.

The topic of the ILRI side event is Livestock research for Africa’s food security.

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist and food safety expert Delia Grace will speak on the topic of food safety and aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins are highly toxic metabolites produced by the mould Aspergillus flavus and known to cause suppression of the immune system, liver disease and death in both humans and animals.

Aspergillus can grow in a wide range of foods and feed and thrive under favourable growth conditions of high temperature and moisture content.

In Africa, aflatoxin contamination of cereals, groundnuts and dried fruits leads to an estimated annual loss to food exporters of 670 million US dollars.

Grace leads ILRI’s research program on food safety and zoonoses. She also leads the ‘agriculture-associated diseases’ theme of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Grace will address the following questions:

  • What are risk-based approaches to food safety in informal markets where most of the poor buy and sell?
  • How should we deal with food safety dynamics: livestock revolution, urbanization and globalization?
  • How can we better understand the public health impacts of aflatoxins?

Other topics that will be discussed at the side event are

Read more about ILRI’s food safety projects in Africa

For more information about the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week, follow updates on the blog or the Twitter feed #AASW6.