Can we consume spoiled food

Africa's fight against sick food

Small flies are omnipresent in markets. They buzz around, sit down on groceries. Not only are they annoying, but also dangerous. Because flies can transmit pathogens such as salmonella or E. coli and cause gastrointestinal diseases in people. At the popular food stalls in Uganda, where raw and cooked pork are sold, the International Livestock Research Institute has found salmonella in every third piece of meat.

Foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria, parasites, toxins or improper storage of food are a problem in many African countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 91 million people develop food infections each year and around 137,000 people die as a result. Nowhere else in the world do so many people develop food infections as in Africa.

Safe food for export

But instead of addressing the issue of food safety in their own country, African governments have in the past focused on compliance with international food standards for export goods. In doing so, they wanted to boost trade and their economy. Aid organizations have also tended to finance projects that benefit the export market, according to a recent report by the Global Food Safety Partnership, an initiative of the World Bank.

Meat and fish in particular that are stored unrefrigerated can quickly become a health risk

"These are legitimate, valuable investments. But now you realize that there is a major health problem in Africa," Michael Taylor, co-author of the report, told DW. Because spoiled food can not only lead to gastrointestinal complaints, but also have long-term health effects. The poison aflatoxin, for example, which can be produced by mold in corn, peanuts and other staple foods, is carcinogenic and causes developmental disorders and liver damage in children.

Chronic exposure to aflatoxins and other foodborne diseases also cause economic damage. The World Bank estimates that the African continent will lose 14.6 billion euros (16.7 billion dollars) in productivity as a result. Food-borne diseases therefore cost the countries just as much as HIV / AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.

Food security in Africa is becoming more important

African governments and development organizations are now aware of the importance of the issue. Food safety has become one of the new pan-African issues, says Kefilwe Moalosi from NEPAD, the development organization of the African Union. As an example, she cites the Partnership for the Control of Aflatoxins in Africa (PACA), which was founded by the African Union in 2014. PACA helps governments regulate their food markets better, educates smallholders on the safest way to store fresh produce, and invests in technology and laboratories to measure and control aflatoxin levels.

70 percent of all food is sold in markets or on the roadside

Regional economic markets such as COMESA for East and South Africa are working on uniform standards for food. And in mid-February, government officials will meet for the first African conference on safe food. "It all shows that Africa is taking over and trying to tackle the issue of food safety," Moalosi told DW.

Consumers need to be educated

But experts warn that the efforts are nowhere near enough. So far, measures have mainly been taken when the crisis is already there, says Abebe Haile Gabriel, representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Ghana. "Only when a problem related to pollution or food safety becomes known do the relevant actors, the media, the government and consumers try to react," he told DW.

Gabriel wants a "forward-looking, strategic and inclusive" approach that primarily involves consumers. He is not alone with this requirement. Lystra Antoine, CEO of the Global Food Safety Partnership, wants to educate consumers about risks so that they can claim their right to safe food.

More on this:Food safety awareness is growing

"When consumers are informed and educated, they can make better decisions about where to buy their food, how to prepare it, how to store it," Antoine told DW. If consumers make demands, providers would have to comply with them. Thus, food safety would not only be improved through legislation, but also through market incentives, explains Antoine.

Success stories

The big challenge is to reach consumers and sellers. Because in Africa 70 percent of all food is sold in markets or on the roadside. Dairy products, meat and fish are rarely refrigerated, and the risk of getting sick is high. Antoine wants posters with relevant information to be hung up in the markets and campaigns to be launched via social media or SMS. How exactly this should look like will vary from country to country, depending on what appeals to the local people the most.

Small farmers produce much of the food consumed in Africa

Solutions don't have to be expensive or complicated, say experts. In Uganda's snack bars, where every third piece of meat was infected with salmonella, owners have placed nets over their goods, halving the risk of contamination, observed researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute. In Kenya, where much of the milk is sold by small farmers, a change in the law in 2004 resulted in them being trained in hygienic milk production and then licensed. They could offer safer goods and also increase their income.

"We have seen some success stories, so we know that food safety can be promoted locally," said Antoine of the Global Food Safety Partnership. "What we want to see now is greater investment in such projects so that they can expand and improve the lives of Africans." The experts agree that it will take a long time to improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa. But the governments and development organizations are on the right track. They would have recognized the importance of safer food for their population and economic growth.