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World Food Day 2021: Food safety is a shared responsibility
Author: Prof Pieter Gouws
Published: 13/10/2021

The potential threat to public health from foodborne disease continues to increase

Pieter Gouws

CAPE TOWN - World Food Day is celebrated annually on October 16 to emphasise the importance of ending hunger globally and ensuring that people have access to food that is safe and healthy.​​

​In this article, I would like to focus on food safety and point out that everybody has a role to play in this regard.

Food safety is an essential public health issue for all. The potential threat to public health from foodborne disease continues to increase with expanding urbanisation and the global distribution of food.

The consequences of a failed food safety policy are costly, with impacts not only on public health but also on food producers and the economy.​​

Assessing the safety of our food has resulted in a paradigm shift to risk-based methods of analysis. Assessment and management of these risks must be scientifically evaluated, requiring input from a range of experts.

Science-based food controls are essential for the protection of food products.

Everyone in South Africa has the right to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, many people fell ill after eating unsafe or contaminated food.

When food is not safe, children cannot learn, adults cannot work and the economy suffers.

Safe food is critical to promoting health and ending hunger, two of the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Without food safety, there cannot be food security.

The world’s food supply chain has become more complex, and any food safety incident like the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa a few years ago has a negative impact on trade, the economy and public health.

In South Africa, food safety is taken for granted, but it is often not talked about until you get food poisoning. Unsafe food contains harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or hazardous chemicals.

We must use this opportunity on World Food Day to highlight the importance of food safety and we need to ensure that the food we eat is indeed safe.

This applies to those who prepare, sell or produce food. Even though we’re in the midst of a pandemic, we should not lose focus on the food that we eat.

Global food production and the supply chain is heavily impacted by the pandemic, and together with climate change all of us need to consider food safety in the future.

Everyone in the food system has a role to play. Governments are critical in guaranteeing that we all can eat safe and nutritious food.

Farming practices must ensure a sufficient supply of safe food while at the same time mitigating climate change and minimising future environmental impacts. The food industry must ensure compliance with programmes like HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), a system that identifies, evaluates and controls hazards which are significant for food safety from primary production to final consumption.

Given the complexity of food safety, consumers need access to clear and reliable information about the nutritional and disease risks associated with their food choices.

I cannot stress this enough: food safety is a shared responsibility and we must work together on global, regional and local issues.

Collaboration is needed at many levels.

One crucial area of collaboration on food safety is the healthy engagement between academics and policymakers, which is essential to the provision of informed, evidence-based and world-class policymaking. Academic research about food safety that’s shared with non-specialists in a clear, concise and engaging way can benefit society.

It is a key skill, but lobbying for policy change goes beyond that. It is about patience, persistence, and developing long-term relationships, based on trust and respect, with those that have influence in the relevant policy area.

This change must come from researchers themselves, particularly in the way they communicate their research findings to a policy audience. Civil servants may sometimes lack expert knowledge in their field and therefore academics need to support and involve government advisers right from the outset, especially when food safety and public health are on the agenda.

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) hosted in the Faculty of AgriSciences, more specifically in the Department of Food Science at Stellenbosch University, is making a valuable contribution in this regard.

It is a one-of-a-kind applied food science research consortium comprising SU and the food industry. In collaboration, they provide stakeholders with the opportunity to develop and exchange knowledge, experience, and expertise in the areas of food safety, food defence and food processing.

The South African food industry benefits immensely from CFS's collaborative research programme.

This is achieved through a multidisciplinary approach, workshops, networking, industry-driven consortiums, seminars and consumer education.

The CFS provides high quality internationally relevant research and training in all aspects of food safety, and supports and encourages research partnerships and alliances with other relevant entities, both nationally and internationally.

The Centre invests in educating and informing the public about food safety as an important means of reducing food-borne illness.

Traditionally, food safety educators have used a global approach to teach food safety, by teaching a broad range of safe food handling behaviours in the expectation that this will lead to the avoidance of foodborne illnesses.

Food safety education is most effective when messages are targeted towards changing those behaviours that will in all likelihood result in foodborne illness. On World Food Day and beyond, we can’t afford to let our guard down because if we do, the microbes in unsafe food will have the last word.

Prof Gouws is the Director of the Centre for Food Safety at Stellenbosch University.

Cape Times