The Right to Safe Food

September 1, 2016

Food safety has been receiving significant worldwide attention due to the increasing number of foodborne illnesses occurring every year. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that 550 million people (7.9 percent of the world population) suffer from foodborne diseases every year, a staggering 230,000 of which are fatal.

The sad reality is that foodborne diseases affect vulnerable populations harder  than  other  groups. According  to  WHO,  infections  caused  by contaminated food have a much higher impact on those with poor or fragile health status and can easily lead to serious illness and death. For infants, pregnant women, the sick and the elderly, the consequences of foodborne diseases are usually more severe and may be deadly. 

Diarrheal diseases alone kill an estimated 1.5 million children annually— most of whom are from very poor countries. These children, more often than not, are only provided two choices: to consume contaminated food or drinking water, or die from starvation. 

This is precisely the scenario in the Lower Mekong Region (LMR), where the consequences of unsafe food are disastrous. While developed countries can afford to impose stricter food safety regulations and provide better access to health care facilities, developing nations—such as the LMR countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV)—are constrained by the lack of food supply, scarcity of supporting infrastructure, and the absence of effective food safety policies. 

The  food  safety  challenge  in  CLMV  has  become  even  more  complex in the context of the emerging ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC  supports  easier  and  faster  trade  of  goods  among ASEAN  countries, encouraging globalization in trade, thereby making the food chain longer and complicating  foodborne  disease  investigation  and  product  recall  in case of outbreaks. The dilemma, therefore, is how to make trading between countries more efficient and less rigid, while at the same time imposing strict quality controls. 

Shifting the Spotlight to Food Safety 

At first glance it would seem that food safety is a major concern solely for  scientists  and  medical practitioners,  but  going  deeper  into  the  issue shows  that  food  safety  is  in  fact  a  multi-sectoral concern.  Food contamination  can  cause  adverse  effects  beyond  direct  public health consequences—it undermines the exports of goods, tourism, the livelihoods  of  food  handlers,  and  economic development  in  general, especially in developing countries. 

The world has become increasingly aware of the consequences of unsafe food,  but  at  the  same  time the  need  to  ensure  food  safety  is  not  as pressing as before. The attention of many health experts, food researchers, and even development agencies has begun shifting from solely promoting food security (i.e.,  ensuring  that  everyone  has  enough  food  to  eat)  to improving food safety (i.e., ensuring that food does not cause any harm to its consumers). 

Mekong  Institute  (MI),  an  intergovernmental  organization  mandated  to provide integrated human resource development initiatives in the Greater Sub-region and the New Zealand Aid Programme (NZAP), a funding agency offering support to developing countries, are among the many organizations that aim to spotlight the issue of food safety in CLMV.

Food Safety Project in CLMV

Food safety and post-harvest training courses were delivered by MI from 2012 to 2015 under the auspices of NZAP. The food safety courses were based around Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) and targeted mid-level CLMV government offcials and private sector participants. 

However,  lessons  from  agricultural  projects  and  studies  in  CLMV  have shown that GAP systems have not proven to be effective in food value chains  and  do  not  contribute  to  improve  food  safety. Consumers  lack confidence  in  GAP  certification,  while  farmers  have  not  implemented GAP  systems due  to  their  complexity  and  compliance  requirements. A major weakness in the GAP-led approach is that there have been no other significant complementary safe food measures along the value chain in the CLMV countries to date. 

To address this gap, MI and NZAP jointly implemented the Food Safety Project  (FSP),  an  18-month initiative  which  aims  to  train  government officials in CLMV on the essentials of food safety and regulatory standards throughout various value chains, with particular emphasis on fresh produce.

Ms. Maria Theresa S. Medialdia, Director of the Agricultural Development and Commercialization (ADC) Department and Project Leader of the FSP, has been directing the project team to align its proposed activities with the overall goal of the project. “Within the project, important aspects that need to be considered include the connection of CLMV regulations to select agri-food value chains to capture higher value market opportunities, the engagement of private sector to strengthen market access, and the role of CLMV officials in applying and sharing knowledge and skills in market-focused food safety regulation development and implementation.” 

While  regional  in  scope,  the  project  also  acknowledges  the country-specific  concerns  of  each CLMV  country.  As  such,  outreach activities will be initiated under the FSP, allowing more freedom for the project to explore ways to work with each country in a more localized manner.

“The rationale of the outreach activity is to enable the project to address concerns  that  are,  say,  only happening  in  Cambodia.  While  the  training programs are set in a regional context, the outreach activities, on the other hand, serve to extend these programs in a local setting tailor-ft to the needs of each particular country.”

Finally,  a  key  feature  of  the  project  design  is  the  use  of  New  Zealand food safety expertise to train and advise CLMV officials on improving food regulations in select value chains. New Zealand’s safe food expertise was considered to be the most appropriate in up-scaling existing regulations to facilitate trade to more profitable markets in the targeted countries. 

All these guiding principles are being realized in the hope that the project can produce genuine and visible impacts on the food safety landscape in the region. 

Providing Safe Food for All 

Judging from its current progress, the MI FSP team is on track to meet its objectives. Two months ago, the MI FSP team has finished conducting its Training Needs Assessment (TNA) in each CLMV country, together with two food safety experts from New Zealand. The TNA was conducted from August 8th to the 25th, where country-specific needs were identified directly with relevant government officials and private sector actors. 

Following this, the “Regional Consultation Workshop on Promoting Food safety in CLMV” was held. Nineteen officials from partner ministries in CLMV were invited to share local experiences with food safety regulation in their respective countries. During the workshop, best practices, challenges, and possible areas of collaboration in securing food safety in the region were identified by the participants and strategic plans of action per country were also developed. 

The TNA report and consultation workshop painted a clear picture of how the  project  should  run  in the remaining  months  of  its  implementation. However,  the  challenge,  still,  is  how  to  address  all  the diverse  country concerns to produce the greatest impact, given the limited time frame.

“The  pressure  really  is  to  produce  impact  quickly.  Given  the  trust  the government officials and other related food safety stakeholders placed in MI, we could not let them down. This is why the ADC, as the department responsible for this project, is giving its best shot to truly address concerns that are highly significant and crucial in each country—not just needs that we think are important and are easy to address.” 

But amidst all the challenges, MI remains positive in its vision for the region. “The vision really is for everyone, men and women of all ages, whether rich or poor have access to safe food; that safe food, in the future, is not anymore a luxury, but a right everyone should enjoy,” Ms. Medialdia said.

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