First international conference on food safety and nutrition was held on 12th and 13th February at the headquarters of the African Union at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Unsafe food is a threat to human health and detrimental to economies all over the world. A recent World Bank study has estimated that there are 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually. Children and economically deprived people are the most vulnerable, shouldering a large burden of foodborne illnesses. The foodborne illnesses in low and middle-income countries cost at least US$100 billion a year. Domestic costs of food safety are often 20 times or more than its trade costs in low and middle-income countries. Food safety has become an important health and developmental issue in the light of new understanding of foodborne disease as a burden and its management, along with rapid and broad changes within societies and agri-food systems.
In the light of the relevance of food safety issues, the first-ever conference at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia on food safety was convened jointly by FAO, WHO, and WTO along with the African Union. It saw the participation of about 800 government officials, experts and other stakeholders of food safety and public health from around the world. The Conference was attended by the WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. From India, FSSAI CEO, Pawan Agarwal lead a four-member delegation that participated in the conference. The exhibition booth at the conference attracted hundreds of regulators from across the world.
In the inaugural session, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva remarked that “there is no food security without food safety.” He added that “the conference provides a great opportunity for the international community to strengthen political commitments and engage in key actions on food safety.” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, DG, WHO said that “food should be a source of nourishment and enjoyment, not a cause of disease or death.” He added that “Unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, but has not received the political attention it deserves. Ensuring people have access to safe food takes sustained investment in stronger regulations, laboratories, surveillance, and monitoring. In our globalized world, food safety is everyone’s issue.”
Food safety is especially important in India as we have a large share of children and poor as well, so the burden of foodborne illnesses is very high. However, India is also one of the first developing countries that have responded to this challenge as they have in place robust legal and institutional arrangements to address food safety issues. India’s Food Safety Authority has evolved its own low cost, high impact models. India’s 3-P (People, Private Sector and Partnership) model places people first. By engaging with people whether at home, at school, at workplaces or when eating out, India’s Food Authority has integrated food safety in people’s everyday life in a seamless manner. FSSAI’s recently concluded Swasth Bharat Yatra, the all-India cycle relay, also helped food safety gain immense visibility. Through this cycle relay, FSSAI was able to integrate and promote healthy diets. FSSAI was able to enhance food safety through public communication about food waste as well as making emotional appeals to embrace food safety.
By working closely with the private sector, India’s food authority is ensuring that the food businesses invest adequately in improving food safety across the supply chain. There is a strong emphasis on capacity building of food supervisors and food handlers through structured training programs. Over 100,000 food safety supervisors have so far been trained.
There have also been significant capacity building measures for lab testing and food safety audit and management in the private sector to share responsibility for food safety overall in the country.
FSSAI has forged many partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders so that everyone is invested in safe food and healthy diets for all people. India’s 3P unique model of food safety found a lot of traction amongst low and middle-income countries including African countries during the conference. Speaking in the panel of heads of National Food Authorities at the conference, FSSAI CEO Pawan Agarwal, thanked the organizers and also stated that India’s low cost and effective model of food safety, that primarily focuses on empowering consumers and building capacities of key stakeholders, has relevance for all low and middle- income countries. Many of these countries are struggling to set up systems for food safety but often food safety has to compete with other public health priorities for scarce resources so the low-cost model can prove beneficial to them too.