Food Safety is becoming a priority in Zambia. The government is revising its food safety strategy and preparing new legislation to improve and modernize food safety governance. In the private sector, a number of food enterprises are upgrading their food safety practices to stay on par with their peers abroad and cater to increasingly demanding consumers.
These improvements are timely and appropriate. While the extent of foodborne risks in Zambia isn’t fully known, recurrent cholera and typhoid outbreaks as well as the fact that 60 percent of the population suffers from diarrhea suggest that foodborne pathogens, poor hygiene and sanitation and other food safety risks are having a negative impact. Anecdotal information supports this point. In conversations with partners in Zambia, over a cup of coffee or dinner, I asked what they thought could cause diarrhea? Most of them responded that it was probably something they ate. They complained that while diarrhea was not a “big deal,” and that “their stomachs were used to bacteria,” it reduced productivity because they had to take sick days away from work. Aside from causing a high death rate among children and the elderly, these diseases place a significant burden on straining public health services, reduce the productivity of the working population and constrain development. Furthermore, the economic and human costs of these diseases are huge.
Over the past year, the Global Food Safety Partnership  (GFSP) has been working with Zambian authorities and other partners to assess what the public and private sector need to make food safer for Zambia’s consumers. Working with the Food and Agriculture Organization , the GFSP piloted a novel approach for food safety capacity assessments by pooling all available resources – studies, new and previous assessments, reports and data – to produce an action plan to address some of the country’s food safety capacity building needs.
What did we discover during our assessments?
We also learned that most Zambian small and medium food manufacturers lack basic equipment for proper thermal processing of food. Some of these manufacturers were selling very tasty but often risky products, such as tomato chutneys and chili sauces, in major supermarket chains and many restaurants. Small investments in basic equipment would allow these enterprises to not only produce safe food more reliably, but also reduce production costs, energy consumption while increasing productivity.
For the public sector, more robust collection and analysis of data on foodborne illnesses and infections is needed to help inform the development of more targeted government policies and create a supportive environment for food manufacturing sector development. If the risks posed by foodborne illnesses are better understood, there will be greater incentive to make food safer.
Our biggest takeaway is that in Zambia, food safety interventions don’t need to be costly or complex. In fact, some seemingly basic interventions could achieve significant positive outcomes without major investment. The GFSP in Zambia is helping establish dialogue with partners and stakeholders to address food safety concerns to reduce overlap and enable better coordination of efforts. While technical interventions are straightforward, institutional arrangements for food safety governance could be more challenging. They usually involve health and agriculture ministries and various government agencies, as well as good cooperation with the private sector. As a global institution, the World Bank Group is well-positioned to support Zambia’s efforts for cross-sectoral collaboration, and through GFSP it has the entry points to help build public-private partnerships for building capacity in the area of food safety.
Zambia has an opportunity to set a unique example for cross-sectoral collaboration to help improve health and economic development outcomes by targeting food safety risks. This would also involve food producers, government, consumer and industry organizations, and academia. This is an interesting example of an innovative approach in a relatively small country having big implications for the region.
Food safety interventions offer innovative entry points for addressing development challenges. Better food safety in Zambia would help improve public health, reducing the impact of foodborne illnesses. It would facilitate trade; open up new market opportunities for Zambian producers, boost their incomes, even reduce costs and create more jobs. It would help expand access to safe and nutritious food for all Zambians, especially young kids. Studies suggest that increasing access to safe and nutritious food helps improve other health outcomes, such as the effectiveness of malaria treatment. Undoubtedly, small steps to improve food safety in Zambia could result in big, positive outcomes for public health and trade.