The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and climate change have brought food security concerns to the forefront. COVID-19 has also elevated the awareness among both consumers and governments around the world of the risks posed by unregulated traditional markets, where most consumers in many global regions purchase lower cost food. Science recently published new evidence that supports the theory that COVID-19 emerged and spread in a large wholesale market, which sold live animals and meat along with seafood in Wuhan. While COVID-19 continues to have global implications, the food safety risks from traditional markets for food pose threats daily for consumers seeking access to safe and healthy food.
What are traditional markets for food? They have many names around the globe: street food markets, local markets, public markets, municipal markets, open air markets, wet markets and farmers’ markets. Traditional markets are dedicated spaces where consumers, food retailers, and wholesalers buy and sell food, frequently for preparation outside the market. They also provide produce and ingredients that are often traded internationally, including as frozen food, dried fruits and vegetables, and everyday spices.
Traditional markets are an important source of affordable fresh food for low-income and food insecure consumers. According to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, in low- and middle-income countries, over 65% of fresh food by volume is distributed through traditional markets, while just over 10% goes through modern retail channels. While essential distributors of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry in many countries, the markets often lack basic infrastructure, like clean water and waste management, that exacerbate food safety challenges. Unsafe food is linked to an estimated 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths annually across the globe.
This is precisely why in 2022 the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the importance of addressing food safety in traditional markets in its Global Strategy for Food Safety 2022-2030: “Developing guidance and scale-up plans to improve the safety of food traded in traditional food markets is a priority.” Solutions are on the horizon. A normative global exercise to develop food safety guidelines for traditional markets would equip stakeholders, including regulators, vendors, food business operators, consumers, to strengthen the capacities of those markets to provide safer food.
At the recent Codex Committee of Food Hygiene meeting that took place in late 2022, the Committee agreed to develop guidelines to improve food safety in traditional markets. Codex was formed by two United Nations organizations, WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 50 years ago as a food safety standard setting body for governments. In November, in response to a proposal by Codex members Bolivia, Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Peru, and with technical assistance from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)’s EatSafe program, over a dozen countries flagged up to support new work to improve food hygiene in traditional markets for food — signaling this work as a high priority for many member states. The multi-year Codex process to develop guidelines will bring focused attention to improving traditional market conditions in support of safer food.
Important work on markets that manage live animals and meat is also being undertaken at the World Health Organization. Interim guidance has been developed for member states to better regulate and communicate the risks of transmission of zoonotic pathogens at the human–animal interface, including risks associated with consumption and trade of wildlife. While this work was initiated in 2020 as the world was facing early effects of COVID-19, an expert committee is currently being formed by WHO to continue this effort.
The two efforts of Codex and WHO are highly complementary and together will provide governments with better tools to support traditional markets in their efforts to deliver high quality and safe food to consumers, an essential step to improve food security.
Traditional markets for food are critical for sustaining vendors’ livelihoods and consumers’ food security. GAIN and its EatSafe program have been on the forefront of improving traditional markets and food safety. A case in point is Nigeria, where formative research highlights that the challenge of addressing food safety risks in traditional markets rests on many actors, including vendors, consumers, and the infrastructure and policy environment around the market. EatSafe, funded by the US Agency for International Development, is focused on increasing food safety in those markets and GAIN looks forward to continuing the effort to improve traditional food markets with Codex, WHO and supportive governments.
Markets are part of the social fabric of many communities, so it is vital that governments take steps to protect local and global consumers from the risks posed by unsafe food, inadequate hygiene and poor management in the markets. While the efforts by WHO and Codex provide important momentum, member states meeting at the World Health Assembly in May this year should keep pressure on both institutions and governments to address this critical public health issue. Because if markets are not delivering safe food, they aren’t delivering food!