Experts have called for debates at a conference on food safety in Africa to be the “beginning of a journey” during their concluding remarks.
Blaise Ouattara, food safety and quality officer at the FAO regional office for Africa, said the event was a forum to exchange knowledge and technological advancement on food safety.
“Taking into consideration the challenges facing the African continent, the conference was able to bring together experts to discuss various areas related to the improvement of food safety. These included governance, the impact of COVID-19 on food systems, continental food safety initiatives, the food control system and academic and developmental partnerships,” he said.
“The conference was an opportunity to highlight the need for mainstreaming food safety into a continental nutritional strategy and to recognize that a healthy diet must be a key goal for sustainable and productive food systems. This is not the end, I hope many follow-up actions will be taken as a result of discussions during the conference.”
The African Continental Association for Food Protection (ACAFP) is an affiliate of the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP). The first ACAFP Conference on Food Safety in Africa was held virtually earlier this month.
Joseph Odumeru, ACAFP president, also reflected on holding the first food safety meeting.
“The conference provided insights into the current and future state of food safety. This is just the beginning of a journey on achieving and maintaining food safety and security in Africa. Messages highlighted the importance of tackling food safety issues, not just in Africa, but globally. We look forward to hosting future conferences.”
Traditional and risk based inspection
In an earlier session, Ouattara spoke about moving from traditional to risk based inspection.
“When we talk traditional food inspection, we see a system that would focus on the correction of food safety concerns that already exist. For example, a focus on sanitation, on end product testing and verification of compliance. The risk-based approach looks at the assessment of the risk and prioritization. It assesses the controls in place to address the risk,” he said.
“There is a change in the nature of the hazard. Over time we had practices focus on detection of zoonotic agents such as Trichinella because we were able to see them or the lesions on carcasses. Today, there are several emerging hazards without clinical symptoms or lesions on the carcasses such as E. coli, Salmonella and toxoplasma and chemical hazards like dioxins or cadmium. You cannot see them but have to manage them.
“Weaknesses of traditional meat inspection are there is no food chain information collected. It is important to have this to help us understand the good agricultural practices in place and how they can affect the risk of the end product.
“Another weakness is cross contamination. In traditional inspection, we have a lot of manual handling of meat and during post-mortem inspection and this is an opportunity for cross contamination, which is not needed if we are able to evaluate carcasses at the beginning. There is the cost aspect and the frequency of inspection, if you have several food businesses, they are not all at the same level of risk, you have to concentrate resources on where it is high.”
In Africa, risk based inspection is not well implemented and not all developing countries are at the same level. Some nations have done certain elements well when moving from traditional to risk-based. Most need to work on the pre-requisite program before they have a well-functioning risk-based food inspection system, speakers said.
Hazard and risk
Ouattara spoke about assessing the severity of a hazard and the probability of it occurring.
“When we combine the two we can determine if the level of risk is low, medium or high and decide to focus on places where risk is important,” Ouattara said. “In the past, authorities put in place regulation and forced businesses to implement them. We are moving to a cooperation between the authority and business where each of them understands their role and responsibility.”
Ouattara said HACCP-based principles are important to evaluate the level of risk during food processing.
“One of the advantages is better understanding of the level of risk. In risk management, we manage the risk not the hazard. The second benefit is we are able to focus on preventive instead of curative measures and the third is better allocation of resources. We have the possibility to change the frequency of inspection that fits the level of risk.”
Another element is looking at different parameters such as inherent risk factors, said Ouattara.
“This is linked to the type of activity, the commodity, type of product and the volume. For example, fresh meat is not the same level of risk as processed or RTE food. They will also look at the processing steps and if the end product will be distributed to vulnerable people. Another is mitigation, is the food business putting in place measures to reduce the level of risk such as food safety certification of ingredients or a sampling program and how the quality control is performing,” he said.
“The third factor is based on the compliance record so inspection results, the impact assessment and history of enforcement action. Also, they will look at the number of consumer complaints. When they put all this together they will have an estimate of the level of risk and will be able to rank the food business, allocate resources and decide on the frequency of visits from authorities.”
Ouattara pointed to findings from assessments in African countries using tools from FAO.
“The policy and regulatory framework is outdated, there is insufficient food safety legislation in many countries and, where there is legislation, there is a lack of enforcement and an absence of coordination with several authorities playing a role in food inspection but not communicating together. We have seen a lot of insufficient capacity to maintain routine control activities and lab capacity. In many African countries there is the importance of informal markets but also street food. The street is not regulated and doesn’t have access to good hygienic and manufacturing practices.”
Ouattara spoke about risk analysis and three components: risk assessment, management and communication including profiling and prioritizing the risk, and doing monitoring and reviews.
“We see two levels of communication. One is between the risk assessors and the risk manager. It is important the scientific people can communicate about risk to the managers. The second is between the authority and food business. The business needs to understand why they are implementing control measures.”
The United Nations’ FAO has a guide for risk ranking at national levels involving food and hazard combinations. An evaluation has been done in Zimbabwe and is ongoing in Liberia. A study in Ghana on risk-based meat inspection found facility design was inadequate in most cases, the supply of potable water and electricity was challenging and an absence of coordination among institutions. Authorities have now created a meat inspection technical committee to guide improvement.
Ouattara also covered the use of technology and alternatives to electricity.
“Digitalization is important, we need to follow the innovation to support food safety. It is an opportunity to bring technologies into the food safety area to make use of them. With the COVID-19 situation and in places were inspectors cannot go to the facilities to inspect the food, there should be a digital solution to allow them to get the result of the inspection remotely and make decisions on the level of risk and implementation of safety,” he said.
“Electricity is key and from the assessment we have done in many countries, particularly in the meat slaughter industry, it is one of the most important challenges. We need commitment from countries to invest in equipment at slaughtering facilities. It is also important to look for alternatives, solar energy for example. There is no magic solution, it will be a combination of different approaches.”
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