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Quality control and risk analysis

In this article Bassirou Bonfoh explains why risk assessment in informal markets is successful when done with participatory methods.
© University of Basel

Risk-based approaches to food safety have the advantage of shifting policy making from spontaneous reactions when confronted with chaotic and unclean open markets to an evidence-based approach. Structured analysis shows that often the risks of informally marketed food are not as high as perceived and are safer than what legal approaches recommend.

Studies show that food sold in the informal sector often contains hazards. Longer distances between producers and consumers as well as transporting larger and more diversely-sourced volumes of food render value chains more complex. With this growing complexity the related hazards tend to increase. Consumer and market value chain studies confirm that in some contexts, especially in developing countries, a high level of disease is associated with food.

However, a series of studies in informal milk and meat markets showed that, although hazards are inevitable in informal markets, risk to human health is not always high. Assessment is needed to understand the source of risks. Work done in several countries by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) came to the surprising conclusion that food sold in formal markets, though commonly perceived to be safer, may have lower standards of compliance than informally marketed food. This emphasises that food safety policy should be based on evidence rather than perception and failure to do so may be prejudicial to the poor who dominate and rely on informal value chains.

Situational analyses showed that few of the public health problems were regularly tested for and that most food in the traditional or informal sector was not inspected. Where inspections occurred, they did not follow a farm-to-fork pathway approach, with the result that inspections happened in sporadic fashion and only at some points.

There is a lack of systematic, risk-based surveillance and inspection due to lack of infrastructure and laboratory facilities or lack of skilled personnel. The underlying reason may be a lack of understanding in how to address these issues under conditions where consumers are largely unable to detect unsafe food and demand remedies for such problems.

The existence of a huge food sector that largely escapes regulation, the high level of hazards in food and the massive burden of gastrointestinal illness all suggest that current food safety policy is not working. Yet, in the situational analysis, stakeholders often blamed insufficient legislation or lack of strict implementation for poor food safety. In recent years, there have been several attempts to improve food safety but this ‘command and control’ method is less likely to work. Paradoxically, legislation can even increase the level of risk.

The lack of data remains a challenge to understand risks from animal-source food. We found that the application of participatory methods in data collection allowed rapid and inexpensive collection of data to fill gaps in information necessary for conducting risk assessment.

Taking this into account, you might want to ponder the following questions: What are the trade-offs between safety and livelihoods? How can we approach the double norms in food inspection? We look forward to reading your comments!

References

Grace, D. et al. (2014). Food Safety in Informal Markets in Developing Countries: Lessons from Research by the International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi, ILRI Research Brief 20.

© University of Basel
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