By Kebede Amenu
Globally, nearly half a million people die of foodborne diseases (FBDs) every year-with children making up 30% of these deaths. In Africa, where the numbers are soberingly high, the death toll is around 140,000 people each year. In addition to the tragedy of the many that die, FBDs also create a massive economic burden-low- and middle-income countries across Africa and Asia are estimated to lose US$95 billion per year due to unsafe food. Yet the burden of FBDs is still not fully recognized in many countries, and as our food systems become increasingly complex, this situation is set to deteriorate further. Fortunately, researchers and governments in Africa are starting to take action to address this.
In September 2021, the United Nations Food Systems Summit called member states-including Ethiopia-to transform their food systems so that people and the planet alike can enjoy a healthier, safer and more prosperous environment.
In connection with the global, regional and national food systems and safety challenges, the Ethiopian government has committed to advancing the implementation of an ambitious food systems transformation launched in 2020 and outlined in a document known as the ‘Ethiopian Food Systems Transformation Pathway’ (EFS-TP). The EFS-TP addresses major areas critical to achieving country-wide access to safe and nutritious food along with a shift towards sustainable consumption patterns, more nature positive production systems, equitable livelihoods, and resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress-all by 2030.
However, a variety of challenges stand in the way of the food systems transformation. Continued population growth, unplanned urbanization and a lack of food safety infrastructure are stressing Ethiopia’s food systems and lowering the overall safety of food supplies. To make matters worse, we lack accurate estimates of the actual health burden of FBDs in Ethiopia which limits our grasp of their magnitude or insight into how best to tackle them-a challenge the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is addressing in collaboration with The Ohio State University and other partners through the TARTARE project.
TARTARE, which aims to better understand the burden of FBDs caused by key pathogens in raw beef and dairy in Ethiopia, is working to achieve greater food safety by promoting the use of risk-based approaches to the management of food safety issues. These approaches focus on identifying priority FBDs to help strategically allocate the limited resources available in Ethiopia for food safety.
As the immense burden of FBDs in Ethiopia becomes clearer, the EFS-TP has outlined key steps to address food safety concerns in the country. Included in the EFS-TP are five ‘Action Tracks’ that delineate the intended long-term outcomes. Action Track 1 is to ‘ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all’, underscoring the fact that prioritizing food safety is fundamental to a successful food systems transformation.
The steps necessary to achieve Action Track 1 begin with strengthening Ethiopia’s national food safety management and regulation system. This will require working with relevant stakeholders to assess and upgrade the national food control system as well as focusing on specific value chains and sectors at risk of FBD transmission, such as poultry, beef and dairy. The EFS-TP also highlights the importance of influencing behaviour so that Ethiopian consumers begin to demand safer food from producers.
Food safety interventions are inherently complex, so it is necessary to determine what kind of interventions can best support the Ethiopian government’s intended food safety outcomes. In addition to the TARTARE project, the ILRI led Pull-Push project aims to generate sustainable improvements in food safety by co-implementing ‘pull’ (demand for safe food) and ‘push’ (supply of safe food) approaches in Ethiopia’s informal markets. The project includes trainings for food safety regulators and vendors to better manage food safety risks. In line with the Ethiopian government’s goal to influence consumer behaviour, the project is also developing communication campaigns to educate consumers on the best food safety practices.
While these efforts and the Ethiopian government’s acknowledgement of the importance of food safety are encouraging, there is still a lot of work to be done. Food safety has historically been seen as a secondary issue in Ethiopia which has made it difficult to address FBDs. While Ethiopia’s food systems transformation presents a unique chance to change this, it could quickly become a missed opportunity if the Ethiopian government does not take urgent action to improve food safety.
On the other hand, if the Ethiopian government takes full advantage of this opportunity to place food safety at the centre of its food systems agenda, it could have a tremendously beneficial impact on the ground. By taking direct actions to improve food safety, such as those outlined in the EFS-TP, the Ethiopian government can take a huge step towards combating FBDs in the country-ultimately saving lives, reducing economic costs, and improving the health and livelihoods of Ethiopians.
Dr Kebede Amenu is faculty member of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Agriculture of Addis Ababa University, and a postdoctoral fellow at the International Livestock Research Institute which is based in Ethiopia. His main areas of research encompass food safety interventions and priority settings in animal health.