‘If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food’: Building food safety into global food security efforts

Washington, DC, 21 October 2020 - 

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

Unsafe food and malnutrition can be twin threats to consumer health and create hurdles to achieving food security for consumers. Yet addressing these twin threats is vital to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2, a bold call to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Achieving this goal will take aggressive action by all countries, especially as pre-pandemic global food security challenges are further exacerbated by Covid-19.

Though access to safe food is essential for food security, many international development experts and donors are unaware of this connection. Food contaminated with pathogens, or chemical or physical adulterants, can interfere with the uptake of nutrients, worsening malnutrition and affecting developmental outcomes in children. Malnutrition can increase an individual’s susceptibility to infections, including diarrhea. There is a strong relationship between gastrointestinal illness and growth impairment in children, including links to stunting. In fact, diarrhea was identified as the greatest single cause of stunting, and even mild diarrheal disease can have long-term effects on child development and adult health.

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that unsafe food causes 1 in every 10 people to fall ill each year, leading to 600 million cases of foodborne-related illness and 420,000 deaths a year worldwide. Children under five are uniquely vulnerable, and consumers in sub-Saharan Africa face the greatest disease burden. Almost one-third (30 percent) of all deaths from foodborne diseases are in children under the age of 5 years, estimated at 125,000 per year.

The economic consequences of foodborne disease for countries are also significant; the World Bank estimates approximately $110 billion is lost in productivity and medical expenses each year. For consumers, this can mean an inability to provide and care for oneself and one’s family, perpetuating cycles of poverty and hunger. These costs also impact national economies, trade, tourism, and ultimately sustainable development.

Foodborne disease is frequently linked to highly nutritious foods, like fresh vegetables or animal products high in protein, because such food items are susceptible to contamination. Animals harbor pathogens, including strains of E. coli or Salmonella, that can be transferred to food during slaughter or harvesting. These risks are especially severe in countries where regulation of food production and food handling are less restrictive, and where consumers and food handlers have less access to clean water sources and adequate food storage. Limited cold chain infrastructure and longer supply chains can increase the likelihood of survival and growth of pathogens in food. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some food supply chains have been disrupted, and market surveys in several countries by EatSafe find that fresh fruits and vegetables are most impacted. Ensuring that traditional markets for safe nutritious food are supported during the pandemic is central to ensuring food security for low-income consumers globally.

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