Fruit and vegetables on sale alongside other food items in a local market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (photo credit: ILRI/Geraldine Klarenberg).

African food systems are dominated by informal markets, typically open-air markets found at designated sites and street corners, which often have poor hygiene and are subject to limited or poor regulation. Occasionally there are calls for these informal markets to be banned, but most consumers depend on them as they are more accessible and affordable than formal markets.

As we celebrate World Food Safety Day on 7 June 2020, it is crucial that governments recognize the importance of better food safety in informal markets. One way to encourage them to take food safety seriously is by harnessing the power of consumer demand.

Foodborne diseases cause a massive health burden and remain a persistent impediment to socio-economic development. The World Health Organization estimates that close to 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die every year from foodborne diseases worldwide. Children under five years of age make up 125,000 of those deaths.

Africa bears the largest per capita burden of foodborne diseases. Every year, more than 91 million people fall ill and 137,000 lose their lives, a toll comparable to the continent’s losses from major infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

In Ethiopia, as in other developing countries, most consumers buy their food from informal markets, attracted by their low prices, freshness, availability of local products and credit services. However, consumers are concerned about the safety of the food they buy from these markets, and they show this in their purchasing behaviour. Research has found that consumers would pay 5–15% more for safety-assured products.

Furthermore, demand for food safety increases with economic development, rising income, urbanization, increased media coverage and education level. The current COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers more conscious of the safety of the food they buy and eat.

The Government of Ethiopia is working to increase the use of appropriate food safety assurance systems to ensure food quality and safety, but challenges include limited infrastructure and human capacity, such as laboratory facilities and trained personnel. A further challenge is that consumers often cannot detect unsafe food.

In contrast, food products developed for export markets receive considerable attention and are subject to higher standards of food safety. Decision-makers understand that meeting international food quality and safety regulatory requirements is a must for building trust among foreign trading partners.

This success has led to attempts to directly adopt some export food safety approaches for food products marketed in the informal market. However, since the settings are so different these approaches rarely work.

An alternative approach that is showing considerable promise is to harness consumers’ concerns about food safety to create greater demand for safe food. This simple approach requires educating consumers and increasing the awareness and capacity of food retailers and producers.

Urban food markets in Africa: Incentivizing food safety using a pull-push approach is a research project led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. It develops and tests a novel but simple and practical approach to improving food safety: building consumer demand for safe food, traders’ ability to deliver it and regulator capacity to support it. It is, in short, a pull-push approach.

For the success of this approach, consumers need to be better informed on safe food including choice, purchase, storage and preparation. In addition, traders and producers need to be supported to develop their capacity to provide safe food and regulators need advice to create an enabling environment.

While regional estimates of the incidence of foodborne diseases are available, less is known at the country level. This project will also provide estimates of the incidence of key foodborne diseases in Ethiopia and provide a better understanding of the cost of foodborne diseases, how these diseases manifest and how they can be controlled.

Food safety is one of the key elements of ILRI’s research portfolio. Our approach to food safety is risk-based, identifying foodborne hazards, generating evidence, developing solutions and building the capacity of policymakers to use risk-based approaches to improve food safety in informal markets.

This feature article for World Food Safety Day was written by Beamlak Tesfaye, a communications officer at ILRI, and Theo Knight-Jones, a senior scientist at ILRI. It was originally published by The Reporter.

Visit the ILRI World Food Safety Day 2020 landing page for more information on our research on food safety in informal markets.

World Food Safety Day 2020 poster

To mark the second World Food Safety Day that will be celebrated on 7 June 2020, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has launched an online food safety campaign and landing page at https://www.ilri.org/world-food-safety-day-2020

The campaign draws attention to ILRI’s long-standing collaborative research on risk-based approaches to improving food safety in informal markets. 

On the landing page you will find a set of key messages on food safety in informal markets as well as links to news, projects, publications, photos and videos on food safety. You will also be able to read the profiles of some of the ILRI experts involved in food safety research. 

Also featured on the page are the voices of some of our partners who share in the mission of working to ensure that the food we buy and eat is safe. 

Remember: there is no food security without food safety and if it is not safe, it is not food!

Join the online conversations by following the hashtags #FoodSafety, #SafeFood and #WorldFoodSafetyDay.

Food market near Khulungira Village, in central Malawi (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).
Food market near Khulungira Village, in central Malawi (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

Today marks the first ever World Food Safety Day following the adoption in December 2018 of a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly to set aside 7 June of every year to celebrate the benefits of safe food and inspire action towards preventing and managing foodborne diseases.

In Asia and Africa, most livestock products and fresh produce are sold in informal markets. The human health burden from foodborne disease is comparable to that of malaria, HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis. Unsafe food is also a barrier to market access for poor farmers.

Food safety is a key part of the research portfolio of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). ILRI leads the food safety flagship of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). This flagship seeks food safety solutions that can work in informal markets; it focuses primarily on mitigating aflatoxin contamination in key staples and on managing risks in informal markets for nutrient-rich perishables like meat, milk, fish and vegetables.

Our approach to food safety research is based on risk analysis. We identify the hazards in food and build the capacity of policymakers to understand risk-based approaches; policy will be more effective and efficient if based on actual risk to human health rather than the presence of hazards. We generate evidence and develop solutions to improve the safety of animal products in informal food markets.

Better management of foodborne diseases could save nearly half a million lives a year and safeguard the livelihoods of over one billion small-scale livestock producers. Indeed, there is no food security without food safety.

Some of the collaborative food safety projects that ILRI has led in the past include work on mitigating the risk of mycotoxins in the feed–dairy value chain in Kenya, improving food safety in smallholder pig value chains in Vietnam and food safety risk assessment and piloting of food safety interventions in eight countries in Africa.

Our current food safety projects seek to test market-based approaches to improve food safety in Cambodia, Vietnam, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.  

Listed below are some recent publications on food safety by ILRI and partners.

For more information on ILRI’s food safety research, contact the A4NH food safety flagship leader Delia Grace Randolph (d.randolph@cgiar.org).