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Creating and Sustaining an Essential Partnership for Food Safety

Photo by John Hogg / World BankThis week, the Global Food Safety Partnership will hold its third annual meeting in Cape Town, just ahead of the holiday season when food safety issues are not on everyone’s minds. They should be. Unsafe food exacts a heavy toll on people and whole economies,  and is cited as a leading cause of more than 200 illnesses. However, safe food does not need to be a luxury—which is something that motivates and animates our work at the World Bank Group. Food availability alone does not guarantee food safety. Increasingly, we are learning how food safety affects people, and disproportionately impacts the lives and livelihoods of poor people.This growing awareness about food safety is partly because of the food scares that have shaken many countries in recent years. Food safety incidents occur anywhere in the world—both in industrialized and developing countries alike and in countries large and small. In April this year, more than 100 people were sickened with suspected food poisoning at a food safety conference in the United States. In 2011, an E. coli outbreak in Germany linked to sprouts resulted in the deaths of 31 people. China has experienced dramatic and tragic incidents of food contamination, including melamine adulteration of milk products. Aflatoxin, a potent toxin produced by two fungi Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus, both of which occur naturally in air and soil, ravages major food crops such as cassava, corn and groundnut that are the mainstay of African diets. And in recent days, Lebanon has been roiled by the naming and citing of food establishments that were serving contaminated food. Most food safety incidents in industrialized countries are detected early and dealt with thanks to strong institutions and regulations which sometimes result in strengthening of food control systems overall. However, in developing countries, such incidents may go unnoticed due to weak institutions and simple lack of awareness. While consolidated World Health Organization estimates of the global burden of foodborne illnesses are expected to be published in 2015, various studies report the staggering impact of unsafe food. A 2010 study estimated that annually around 155,000 deaths can be attributed to salmonellosis alone.

Food safety problems can impact public health, constrain access to markets, crimp business profits and limit economic opportunities for poor people. Unsafe food could worsen the impact of hunger, and exacerbate the consequences of poverty. Food safety is an intrinsic element of food security, and access to safe food is a basic human need.  According to World Food Summit 1996, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

This is why the World Bank and International Finance Corporation have joined efforts to address food safety in development. In 2012, we supported the establishment of the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP)—a public-private partnership dedicated to building food safety capacity in developing countries. Global public goods challenges require public-private collaboration for their resolution. Improved food safety, when addressed in a concerted manner, in collaboration with public and private actors, can help end poverty and boost shared prosperity thereby contributing directly to the twin goals of the World Bank Group. Food safety is not just about investments in hardware, such as laboratories, buildings and equipment. Food safety is also about developing skills and capacity, achieving behavioral change and promoting collaborative learning. This is why we believe that the GFSP model enables more effective operations, and leverages our financial and technical assistance to attract more resources for our clients. It also a way to consolidate our efforts in various sectors—specifically agriculture, health and rural development to name just a few—for stronger impact.

The Global Food Safety Partnership has been testing various approaches to building food safety capacity. These include innovative training programs in China, multi-sector food safety capacity development needs assessment in Zambia, laboratory training capacity development and harmonizing global curricula for food safety education. All these have advanced with close collaboration of partners and institutions from around the world. Here are some examples of collaborative work under the umbrella of the Global Food Safety Partnership.

In China, GFSP partners are joining efforts for food manufacturer capacity development in food safety. Working together, a group of regional and global industry organizations, food retailers and manufacturers, and academic institutions will organize a “Training of Trainers” session for Shanghai-based manufacturers on food safety competencies, including HACCP and good manufacturing practices. Our hope is that this training will cascade down in the participating companies by developing food safety skills for hundreds of food practitioners.

In Zambia, a joint GFSP/FAO team and government counterparts developed a comprehensive action plan to address food safety challenges. The action plan focuses on several priority areas that could help food manufacturers achieve quick wins—develop good food safety practices, reduce foodborne disease risks, and improve access to markets for small and medium enterprises. This action plan also focuses on boosting the capacity of regulatory practitioners through introducing risk-based food safety control systems. Our teams are working with Zambian counterparts to advance the implementation of the action plan in 2015.

Working globally, the GFSP commissioned a survey jointly with the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) to map global resources for food safety education. The results are revealing. Globally food safety education is a growing topic of interest. Most academic programs were established as recently as only ten years ago, and for most universities, the subject of food safety is taught at the tertiary level. Interestingly, while a number of respondents noted that graduate education was sufficient to equip students with food safety skills, a growing number felt that on-the-job-training or capacity development were equally important aspects. This survey also helped us to identify where the main gaps are in academic training and vocational skills, and where we can learn the most for promoting global food safety education.

These and other examples of GFSP work are notable because they are activities implemented with a range of GFSP partners—associations, food companies, academic institutions, governments and inter-governmental organizations. The GFSP partnership is about bringing best practices and knowledge to achieving one common goal—improving food safety as a global public good. If such a partnership did not exist, it would have to be created. As a fledgling partnership, the GFSP has delivered results. It is an essential partnership worth sustaining.


Juergen Voegele

Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank

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