Mini Cruncher: EatSafe - Protecting Nutrition through Food Safety

15 January 2024 - 

The below transcript has been edited for clarity and readability

Sadia Kaenzig: Hello, everyone. I'm Sadia Kaenzig, Head of Communications at GAIN. And welcome to this Mini Cruncher, just a small talk with Caroline DeWaal. Based in DC, she's the Deputy Director of EatSafe, and we're going to talk about EatSafe and the importance of food safety.

Feed the Future's EatSafe: Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food is a USAID funded programme, that aims to enable lasting improvements regarding the safety of nutritious foods in traditional markets, by focusing on behaviour change.

It's a programme that GAIN has worked in, especially in two contexts, and that's Nigeria and Ethiopia, to establish evidence-based, the best practices on food safety interventions.

Caroline DeWaal: Sadia, thank you so much for having me on and for scheduling this interview. I have been working on food safety since 1992, when a major outbreak in the US was linked to contaminated meat. A few years later, Europe also faced a major outbreak linked to mad cow disease originating in the UK. These incidents made consumers more aware and demanding of changes in the food industry. I've observed that consumers, especially in some countries, are now more sensitive about the quality and safety of the food they purchase, and they demand high-quality, nutritious, safe products from the industry.

On the development side, there's been a significant shift as well. Food assistance programs in high and low-income countries used to focus on distributing excess commodities, like high-fat dairy products. However, now there is a greater emphasis on the nutritional quality of food provided to low-income consumers, both in the US and through food aid programs in low-income countries. This change reflects a growing recognition of the importance of nutrition in food assistance and development initiatives.

Sadia Kaenzig: Wow, and so there are some changes that you see in terms of quality, in terms of perhaps the scope, the magnitude of how food safety has been prevailing worldwide?

Caroline DeWaal: Food safety is always critical to governments, as consumer trust can be significantly shaken by events involving unsafe food. A prime example of this was the incident with melamine-contaminated infant formula in China, which severely impacted consumer trust there. 

However, the approach and emphasis on food safety vary considerably in low-and-middle-income countries. While these countries may have food safety policies in place or under development, the actual implementation of these policies often lags behind those in developed countries. This gap highlights the need for more effective enforcement and adaptation of food safety measures to protect public health and maintain consumer confidence in these regions.

Sadia Kaenzig: If we zoom into the EatSafe Programme as such, what has driven you to join GAIN and work on this programme?

Caroline DeWaal: I've always been drawn to challenges in food safety, particularly those in traditional markets, which represent a significant challenge. My interest in this issue first peaked in the 2000s, when I developed a concept note for a major US foundation. Though it was an idea ahead of its time then, the landscape has since changed.

When GAIN announced its project focusing on consumer demand for food safety in traditional markets, I saw an opportunity I couldn't miss. I joined the project in 2020, soon after its inception.. I'm extremely proud of the work we've done so far. It addresses a complex and pressing problem, and I believe our efforts are going to make a substantial impact on these markets. The progress we've made in ensuring food safety in these traditional settings is not just a professional achievement but a step forward in public health and consumer protection.

Sadia Kaenzig: When we talk about EatSafe, we talk a lot about capacity building, training people. You have the vendors, you have the consumers, and you need to ensure that everybody's on the same page regarding what is at stake here on food safety, right? So how do you go about training people? How do you go about building that capacity?

Caroline DeWaal: I think the training programme that EatSafe is developing for vendors in these markets is going to be among its most important contributions. 

We've learned through our formative research that vendors in these markets are very low literacy. So you have to teach this technical information to people who may not have completed an elementary school education. We tested two models. In Nigeria, we have a fairly typical model of vendors leaving the market for several days and going and doing an intensive training session outside the market, and it's been very popular. Vendors have asked for retraining, more vendors wanna be trained. So that model has clearly worked and has met a need for vendors in that market. 

In Ethiopia, we tested a different model. The vendors there said that they didn't want to leave the market, and they wanted very short training. Students from Hawassa University visit the market twice a week, and they go in both to teach the basics of food safety, but also to give demonstrations of low tech, very easily replicable techniques to manage food safety. So for example, they're trained on how to create a soapy water bottle using detergent and clean water that can sit at their stand all day. They can use it for hand washing, they can use it for cleaning surfaces, and this type of technique can be used in markets around the world. 

So designing these training programmes, it's going to be a key learning out of EatSafe and one that we hope will be used in many other programmes.

Sadia Kaenzig: If we move to another question regarding, you know, throughout our career as women, we always wear everything with that gender lens and also about ensuring that there's gender equity, empowering women to take more responsibility so that we reach a healthier planet and also push for healthier diets for everybody, right? But their role in it as well. 

So wearing that gender lens and going into the markets, those traditional markets and all this, do you see that there is a difference in terms of awareness from a gender perspective? Do you see that?

Caroline DeWaal: Women play a pivotal role in these markets, and we did identify a number of key differences between women and men's roles in the market. First of all, women are both consumers and vendors in the market, but they typically are vendors of vegetable products, not meat products.

Though there can be crossover, and it probably depends on the country, in the markets where we've been working, women are more likely to be selling vegetables than meat. As consumers, women are more selective. They tend to negotiate more on price, they spend more time in the market actually talking with and meeting with the vendors. And they have essentially a higher standard when it comes to the hygiene of both the vendors and the stalls. 

So women can play a pivotal role in increasing food safety by increasing their demand for these hygiene standards in the market.

Sadia Kaenzig: Caroline, on that precise point, you go to the market, you choose..., because you tend to select products that are fresher for you, but then how do you counterbalance that with the food loss? Because people just going to select, you know, the fresher food, and how do you do that within the scope of action that you have? 

Caroline DeWaal: There is a very important overlap between food safety and food loss. However, the solution to that is not to buy less safe food. We need to keep the standard very high. So the goal is to get the freshest food into the market and sold rapidly. 

But it raises a another issue, Sadia, which is the issue of waste management in the market. Food that is past its prime can certainly be used in things like stews and cooked. So vendors could have your cooking tomatoes and your fresh tomatoes separate. 

But secondly, it's very important that we build into these markets the concept of composting, so the vendors have the ability to not just throw out of date food into the waste stream, but to create a composter in the market that can be used by farmers in the area as well. 

So it is really important that food that is past its prime go to other important uses that might be animal feed in some areas or compost, but food waste is a vital issue and one that needs to be managed in these markets.

Sadia Kaenzig: And do you think that here, advancement in technology innovation, could that make a difference here to improve food safety as well? 

Caroline DeWaal: Oh, absolutely. There is exciting work that GAIN has been doing on rebuilding markets in some areas. EatSafe didn't have that mission. EatSafe's mission was around creating consumer demand. It is vital that to really address food safety in the markets, these efforts go hand in hand. We need to make sure there is basic infrastructure like clean water, waste management systems and floors that are not dirt, which get all muddy as soon as it rains. So we need to make sure the infrastructure is there. 

We need to make sure that the government supports the market, so we have a strong enabling environment. But we also need to make sure that consumers are empowered to demand the best conditions in these markets and to ensure that both the vendors, the market authorities and government officials know that they need to take food safety in these markets very seriously and take steps to address gaps.

Sadia Kaenzig: And to know a bit about the trends, you need data, right? And here like AI and all the digital transformation, I think that that can play a role as well, no?

Caroline DeWaal: Well, I think that one thing we do need to recognise is there are gaps, frequently, in the technological capabilities of some of the actors in the markets. With that, it's very important to use the tools that they do use. So example, we had a radio programme that was very successful in Nigeria, and in fact they would play it in the market at our safe food stand or kiosk. We also used WhatsApp and companion apps where the vendors are communicating as a group to share food safety messages to trigger continued attention on food safety by the vendors.

Sadia Kaenzig: Caroline, we reached the last question that we have for you. And this is really about the framework, the regulatory framework, the standardisation at the global level, like who's the guardian of that? How does it work? And then if you could speak also about some of our policy advocacy. What are the recommendations coming from GAIN towards the policymakers regarding food safety?

Caroline DeWaal: Traditional markets actually are regulated frequently at the local level. So this is a bit challenging because, you know, you've got to impact, you've got to advocate for traditional markets at this very local level. 

That said, I was really happy to learn as part of the research that I conducted for EatSafe, that four different global regions had standards for street vended food. And street vended food is frequently sold in these markets. So there was a lot of overlap with standards that were needed for the global markets. 

GAIN has progressed the issue of policy for traditional markets by asking the Codex Alimentarius to look at this. So we've got four regional standards, but we want one global standard that helps guide policy makers in how to regulate food safety in these markets. And I'm so pleased that Codex took up that challenge and the work is being led by Kenya, Bolivia, and Nigeria. 

But that's not enough, even when we get global standards, which will hopefully be in a couple of years, where the global standards become very important is providing the incentive and the momentum for governments themselves to take on the work in traditional markets. 

I'm really pleased that traditional markets is part of the modernisation of food safety laws in Nigeria where we've been working the longest. So the national government has recognised its role, but now we need to get those standards into the hands of stakeholders, vendors, market authorities, and so that they can be applied at the local level. 

So it's not enough to work globally. It's not enough just to work at the national level. To really tackle this problem, we have to get the standards, which should be science-based and effective for food safety, all the way down to the leaders at the local level.

Sadia Kaenzig: And Caroline, for WHA, the World Health Assembly, we're gonna talk about Codex, right? Will that somehow be tackled as well, this aspect of the food safety work?

Caroline DeWaal: Two years ago at the World Health Assembly, they adopted a global strategy for food safety. And I'm so pleased that traditional markets are part of that global strategy. While GAIN is tackling the food hygiene standards through Codex, separately, WHO is tackling the markets where live animals are traded and sometimes slaughtered. So both of these are very helpful efforts and bring the attention at the World Health Assembly to traditional markets.

There's also some work though that's needed in getting indicators, food safety indicators that will help WHO measure progress for the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the goal on ending hunger. 

So the recognition of the role that food safety plays to address hunger, to address malnutrition, this is all work that EatSafe has helped to progress and that we hope GAIN will continue long into the future.

Sadia Kaenzig: Thank you so much, Caroline, for this rich discussion. To all our viewers joining in, if you are interested in finding out more, just go to our website and please do share, like, and comment. Thank you.