Rinsing fresh fish, Accra, Ghana

Rinsing fresh fish in Accra, Ghana (photo credit: ILRI/Kennedy Bomfeh).

A new World Bank study finds that the impact of unsafe food costs low- and middle-income economies about US$ 110 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year. Yet a large proportion of these costs could be avoided by adopting preventative measures that improve how food is handled from farm to fork. Better managing the safety of food would also significantly contribute to achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals, especially those relating to poverty, hunger and well-being.

Foodborne diseases caused an estimated 600 million illnesses and 420,000 premature deaths in 2010 according to the World Health Organization. This global burden of foodborne disease is unequally distributed. Relative to their population, low- and middle-income countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa bear a proportionately high burden. They account for 41% of the global population yet 53% of all foodborne illness and 75% of related deaths.

Unsafe food threatens young children the most; although children under five years of age make up only 9% of the world’s population, they account for almost 40% of foodborne disease and 30% of related deaths.

The new study, Safe food imperative: Accelerating progress in low- and middle-income countries, translates these grim statistics into economic terms to focus government attention on the need for greater investment, better regulatory frameworks, and measures that promote behaviour change.

The total productivity loss associated with foodborne disease in low- and middle-income countries is estimated to cost US$ 95.2 billion per year, and the annual cost of treating foodborne illnesses is estimated at US$ 15 billion.

Other costs, though harder to quantify, include losses of farm and company sales, foregone trade income, the health repercussions of consumer avoidance of perishable yet nutrient-rich foods, and the environmental burden of food waste.

“Food safety receives relatively little policy attention and is under-resourced. Action is normally reactive—to major foodborne disease outbreaks or trade interruptions—rather than preventative,” says Juergen Voegele, a senior director at the World Bank. “By focusing on domestic food safety more deliberately, countries can strengthen the competitiveness of their farmers and food industry and develop their human capital. After all, safe food is essential to fuel a healthy, educated, and resilient workforce.”

The report schematically describes the alignment—or lack of alignment—between food safety risks and the capacity to manage them as countries develop economically and food systems and diets transform. The study finds that the gap is the most pronounced “in the middle of the pack,” that is, among lower-middle income countries, and it offers targeted recommendations to address these.

“Governments in low- and middle-income countries not only need to invest more in food safety but also invest more smartly,” says Steven Jaffee, agriculture economist at the World Bank and lead author of the study. “This means investing in foundational knowledge, human resources, and infrastructure; realizing synergies among investments in food safety, human health, and environmental protection; and using public investment to leverage private investment.”

The study was supported by the United States Food and Drug Administration. It is a collaborative effort involving multiple researchers and practitioners and draws on data and insights from the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health and other partners.

Among the study’s co-authors is Delia Grace, joint leader of the Animal and Human Health program of the International Livestock Research Institute and leader of the food safety flagship of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.