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By Dr. Renata Clarke

Sub-regional Coordinator UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

Few things are as natural and as necessary as eating food. However, if food producers, food processors, food handlers and consumers do not follow good food safety practices, food can become contaminated and rather than nourishing us and bringing us pleasure, it can make us sick or even kill us. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) Statistics, the public health burden of unsafe food is very high: in 2015 they estimated that over 600 million people fall ill and 420 000 die every year from foodborne diseases. It was at the launching of the WHO 2015 Report on the Burden of Foodborne disease that Awilo Ochieng Pernet, the then-Chairperson of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the global body responsible for developing food safety and food quality standards, made a call for the establishment of a World Food Safety Day (WFSD).  She recognised the need for broader ownership of food safety responsibilities and a regular reminder throughout society that “food safety is everyone’s business.”  That call was heeded and here we are…

This year, the second annual celebration of WFSD, in the midst of the Covid, the message of WFSD takes on a particular resonance in the Caribbean.

Firstly, the vulnerability of several Caribbean countries to disruptions in global supply chains has led to re-energised calls for attention to resilient food systems and a regional approach to food security.  We will not have efficient regional trade of food if countries do not have confidence in the other’s ability to reliably produce and market food safely. No government wants to be bringing sub-standard food into its country. Facilitating intra-regional trade requires that CARICOM countries have transparent, robust and science-based systems of food control. There is considerable work that Caribbean countries still need to do to achieve this: it requires careful planning and appropriate investment.  Many countries have weak legal frameworks for assuring food safety, weak and poorly coordinated institutions and under-equipped food safety laboratories. These are the basic elements of national food safety systems.

Several CARICOM countries have launched Covid-19 response and recovery plans to mitigate impacts on food security and agriculture. These plans involve the introduction of new techniques and technologies that enable more competitive and sustainable production systems. Innovations in food production necessarily requires vigilance and proactivity in terms of identifying new patterns of food safety risk and controlling them to ensure that the public’s health is protected. This celebration of WFSD should serve as an instigation for a reflection on the adequacy of current food safety monitoring and surveillance.

Finally, a word about markets. For this year’s WFSD, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO, have put a focus on the theme “Safe food in markets.”  I would like to state out front, that there have been no cases of Covid-19 being transmitted by food. It is not a foodborne disease. However, in the context of Covid-19, food businesses and food markets need to reinforce hygiene practices and enable safe physical distances during all operations. Traditional markets and farmers’ markets play an important social function both in terms of providing food and in terms of providing income. With loss of jobs in the tourism and service sectors, in some Caribbean countries we have seen upsurges in street vending of food. Very often the management and the infrastructure of the markets do not allow adequate bio-safety and food safety.  Repeated incidents of the emergence of zoonotic diseases (caused by germs spread between humans and animals) that are linked to poor sanitation and hygiene in markets demonstrate clearly that we cannot be complacent about hygiene management in markets.

Another very visible change in food marketing in the Caribbean during the Covid-19 Pandemic has been the expansion of various forms of on-line food sales. E-commerce has long been considered a potential growth area, particularly in many developing countries. However, it is important for food safety regulators to consider whether legislative frameworks need to be updated to ensure that food chain actors involved in e-commerce have the same responsibilities for food safety as do food businesses operating “traditionally.”

Dynamism of food systems is going to increase. Caribbean countries must invest in their capacities for effective food control as an essential contribution to building resilience in an effort to improve food security.

Thoughts and views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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