Published on Agriculture & Food

Cities can play a role in food safety

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Market in Malaysia Market in Malaysia

We’ve all been there. That queasy feeling when we realize we may have eaten food that is going to make us sick. This is a global problem and the human costs are high. More than 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die every year from eating contaminated food. 

If you live in a high-income country — where governments have stringent food safety standards, with staff and budgets for enforcement — you might only doubt the food safety system when food scares — such as with E. coli or salmonella — make headlines.

As we mark World Food Safety Day, it is important to consider that consumers in many developing countries are not so lucky. For many low- and middle-income countries, food safety standards are primarily for exports to stack the shelves of wealthier nations' supermarkets. But beyond that, domestic food safety has received relatively little policy attention and action is normally reactive — to major foodborne disease outbreaks or trade interruptions — rather than preventative.

In practice, this means that there are few measures in place to ensure that domestically traded food remains uncontaminated throughout production, transportation, storage, and processing. Regulations, where they exist, are often not unenforced due to limited resources and capacity. Moreover, many consumers buy from informal markets and unregulated vendors: wet markets, roadside kiosks, and street food sellers. But such retailers do not maintain food safety, are seldom subjected to enforced standards, and typically lack training in food hygiene practices. Within households, ensuring hygiene during food preparation is challenging when safe and clean water is not always easily accessible.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the global burden of foodborne disease falls on poorer countries. Relative to their population, low- and middle-income countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa account for 41 percent of the global population yet 53 percent of all foodborne illness and 75 percent of related deaths. In economic terms, the impact of unsafe food costs low- and middle-income economies about $110 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year  - even without factoring in the hard-to-measure costs of domestic food market disruptions and consumer product avoidance.

The question is how to address food safety within the complex, dynamic, and largely informal food systems that dominate in low- and middle-income countries. The good news is that much of the burden of unsafe food can be avoided through practical and often low-cost behavior and infrastructure changes at different points along food value chains.  This requires re-thinking food safety as a shared responsibility rather than the sole responsibility of government, the traditional but less effective approach to food safety.

Instead, greater emphasis is needed on providing information and other resources to motivate and empower food sector operators across the value chain to comply with food safety regulation. In practical terms, this means encouraging consumers to demand safer food. The results of regulation should be measured in terms of compliant enterprises, confident consumers, and safer food rather than the number of fines or business closures.

And cities present a great opportunity to address food safety, since this is increasingly where people live. It  is estimated that two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050. 

While cities lack the resources and reach of national governments, they more than make up for it in their capacity to be nimble, experimental, cross-cutting, and closely connected to business and citizen communities. Gone are the days when food was the sole concern of national ministries of agriculture. Rather, those best placed to develop and pursue integrated food policies that respond to citizens’ needs and boost cities’ overall resilience are today’s city leaders and planners.

With their power to influence the uses of space and the built environment, to regulate and stimulate private enterprise, and to shape public service delivery, cities’ embrace of food policy can be game-changing. One example is the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact: an international agreement among cities from all over the world – 260 and counting - committed to provide healthy and affordable food to all people while also addressing the impacts of climate change. Another example is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSAAI) initiation of the Clean Street Food Hub. The initiative approaches street food vendors in clusters rather than as individuals and provides vital infrastructure and training. Often in partnership with municipal bodies, the hubs are supplied with running water for hygiene, and waste management facilities for disposal.

Ultimately, food and nutritional security can be realized only when the essential elements of a healthy diet are safe to eat, and when consumers recognize this.  The theme of this year’s World Food Safety Day is “food standards save lives” and urges everyone – from farmers, to vendors, to regulators - to make food safety their business. It would benefit us all to do so.


Some more information can be found here:

Report: Thriving: Making Cities Green, Resilient, and Inclusive in a Changing Climate

Report: The Safe Food Imperative: Accelerating Progress in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

Report: RICH Food, Smart City : How Building Reliable, Inclusive, Competitive, and Healthy Food Systems is Smart Policy for Urban Asia

Report: Urban Food Systems Governance: Current Context and Future Opportunities

Report: Food Systems for an Urbanizing World

Report: Urban Food Systems Diagnostic and Metrics Framework


Martien van Nieuwkoop

Former Global Director, Agriculture and Food Global Practice, World Bank

Bernice Van Bronkhorst

Global Director,Urban, Resilience and Land Global Practice (GPURL)

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