IT is estimated that every year, more than 600 million people fall sick from different types of foodborne illnesses.
The burden of such illness falls most heavily on the poor and young children. Other reports indicate that foodborne illnesses are also responsible for more than 420,000 preventable deaths every year.
At the ‘Regional Training on Scientific Basis of Codex with focus on Data Generation and provision for Standards Setting’ held here in Zanzibar recently, Dr Stella Kiambi from Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) mentioned that about 34 percent of all these deaths affect children under the age of five years, despite them representing only nine percent of the global population.
Dr Kiambi who spoke on behalf of Mrs Nyabenyi Tipo, FAO Country Representative in the United Republic of Tanzania said further that according to the World Bank, food safety-related issues cost developing countries up to $110 billion in lost productivity and medical treatment in 2016 alone, affecting national economies, trade and tourism, stimulating sustainable development.
It is behind this background that the Codex Alimentarius, or “Food Code”, a collection of standards, guidelines and codes of practice adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) are being emphasised and strengthened in different countries, including East Africa to minimise unsafe foods.
CAC is the central part of a joint FAO/World Health Organisation (WHO) Food Standards Programme and was established by FAO and WHO to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.
“Food Safety is a concept that fully materialises through the Codex Alimentarius Commission and its highly scientific normative work,” Dr Kiambi said at the training of food safety officers from East African region, adding that Codex standards ensure that food is safe and can be traded and that the 188 Codex members have negotiated science-based recommendations in all areas related to food safety and quality.
She said that almost everyone benefits from the Codex, although most people will never get to hear of it, “The use of the latest technologies for their work maintains Codex’s place as the global platform for developing food safety and quality standards that protect consumers and promote good practices in food trade internationally.”
She explained that FAO in collaboration with WHO supports Codex work through scientific advice, “And I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the valuable contribution of experts from member countries in responding in a timely manner to calls for data when they are made.”
Dr Kiambi says the Codex Trust Fund project has been in place since 2016, with the vision of improving the participation of member countries in the international processes of standards development. The project has provided support to 50 countries in the world, including 28 in Africa, through 41 projects, including 37 individual projects and 4 group projects.
“FAO is pleased that the East African Community countries are benefiting from FAO/WHO Codex Trust Fund. I am convinced that this will contribute to developing the capacities of national institutions and competent authorities in Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania,” she said.
Dr Kiambi said this will also support the efforts of other partner organisations such as the African Union, GIZ, USAID and Trademark Africa to achieve food safety.
The aim of the regional training was to bring together representatives of the five countries, with the objective of uniting their efforts towards streamlining systems and processes to generate and submit data to support regional and international standards setting.
The gathering also demonstrated the commitment and prioritisation of respective governments to achieving food safety desired outcomes, “Moreover, this point is one that is closest to our hearts because as we have always said, ‘Food Safety is everyone’s business,” she said.
Dr Kiambi further pointed out that the training was supposed to set the stage for participating countries to make sound contribution towards structured testing of contaminants and toxins of interest to the region with a view to submitting data to the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS)/Food Contamination Monitoring and Assessment Programme.
She highlighted in her speech that currently, very few countries in Africa submit data to GEMS/Food even for contaminants and toxins in food, such as Aflatoxins, lead, arsenic and mercury as well as pesticide and veterinary drug residues.
She said FAO’s strategic framework towards 2031 has prioritised food safety through the objective of eliminating hunger, ensuring food security and improving nutrition in all its forms, including the promotion of nutritious foods and improving access to healthy diets.
“This is why we are making every effort to support countries through projects such as the Codex Trust Fund, but also through many other technical cooperation projects and national, sub-regional and regional projects by improving food safety,” she said and recognised efforts of academia and research in generation of data and recommended that Codex data should be mainstreamed in different countries’ research agenda.
She expressed FAO’s unwavering support for any initiative aimed at improving the safety and quality of food as well as the efficiency of food control and inspection systems.
She thanked the national Codex Contact Points of Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania who are doing a wonderful job together through the Trust Fund project.
“In addition, I would like to point out that the support of governments and actors in the food world is very necessary for the real achievement of food safety in the countries,” she said.
She encouraged the National Codex committees in the region to work in unity because, in unity lies strength, as the saying goes. “Alone we can go fast, but together we go further…and this applies to our efforts to achieve food safety in each country and in the region.”
Ms Rabia Shariff Ali from the Zanzibar Bureau of Standards (ZBS) and Ms Leila Miraji Kihwile from FAO Zanzibar office said the training was important at this time when they are struggling to control counterfeit, contaminated and expired foods penetrating into the market.
“Codex is very important as it brings us together to operate by observing agreed standards and guidelines to ensure food safety,” said Ms Kihwile as Mr Diomedes Kalisa- Coordinator of the Codex project at FAO put emphasis on collaboration and commitment to achieve the goal.
Ms Pamela Akwap- Senior Standard Officer, coordinating country representative of Codex Project from Uganda Bureau of Standards explained that veterinary drugs, pesticides, food additives and contaminants are some of the issues of public concern to the region that affect food trade due to the food safety element.
EAC has actively participated in different committee projects, but however, in order to enhance our participation and achieve the project goal and objectives, it is important for the region to undertake regional training on the scientific basis of Codex with a focus on data generation and provision for standards-settings
“We need to note that data collection/generation is an essential tool for the development of EAC countries. It can provide valuable insights into the needs and priorities of communities, identify areas of opportunity for economic growth and track progress towards development goals, especially on food safety,” Ms Akwap said adding, “This is critical for the EAC region and we should treat it with urgency so that the region can influence and contribute effectively to the Codex standards setting processes.”
The training objectives were to enhance knowledge on the risk analysis framework in Codex; to share knowledge and experience on how to generate, collect and utilise scientific data for supporting the establishment of Codex Standards and to improve skills on the use and application of the GEMS/Food Database.