South Africa

Quality and safety must be controlled to protect food sector and consumers

Food safety risks are quite worrying. As such, the discussions about food security shouldn’t only lean on availability and affordability. More emphasis should be placed on quality and safety. This task lies squarely on the shoulders of everyone – consumers, food producers and regulators.

I recently commended South Africa’s food security status in my personal blog. This was after the Economist Intelligence Unit placed South Africa in 44th place out of 133 countries worldwide in the 2017 Global Food Security Index.

This essentially makes South Africa the most food secure country on the continent. Some conflated the blog post with the land reform policy debates, arguing that the proposed expropriation without compensation policy would tamper with the progress made thus far. But my intention was to shed light on the meaning of food security.

The Global Food Security Index captures the most critical aspects of food security, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. These are affordability, availability, quality and safety. While affordability and availability have been a key focus following the robust agricultural output of the 2016/17 production season, the quality and safety aspects have seldom been mentioned in food security debates.

This is quite regrettable, as food quality and safety are important levers of food security. A case in point is the drastic impacts of recent disease outbreaks, such as avian influenza and listeriosis, in South Africa.

In 2017, more than 4.8 million birds were culled across the country due to avian influenza. This is not unique to South Africa; a couple of European and Asian countries also encountered the disease from 2016 to the beginning of 2017, but they managed to address it swiftly.

However, the challenges seem to be lingering in South Africa. On 26 March 2018, in an article published in Business Day, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries called on poultry farmers in coastal areas to be on high alert amid fears of a fresh outbreak of the deadly avian influenza.

If it rears its ugly head once again, it will surely be double jeopardy as the South African food sector is still grappling with listeriosis. Reports suggest that listeriosis was located in a few meat processing factories, and it took South Africa more than five months to trace these sources of contamination. This indicates some level of inefficiencies in the country’s food safety monitoring systems.

Another case worth monitoring pertains to increasing honey imports from China. South Africa’s honey imports increased from 476 tonnes in 2001 to 4,206 tonnes in 2017, according to data from Trade Map. This is mainly due to steady domestic demand, coupled with a decline in domestic honey production. But worth highlighting is that, on average, 76% of South Africa’s honey imports came from China in the past 17 years.

Chinese honey has in the past dominated the headlines, but not in a good way. In 2014, food24.com ran an article which highlighted that Chinese farmers were caught producing counterfeit honey. Europe had similar experiences with imported honey to such an extent that in 2014 European lawmakers ranked honey on the sixth spot on the list of 10 top products that are most at risk of food fraud. This has been a big scandal, and is illustrated in the Netflix documentary Rotten - Lawyers, Guns & Honey.

These food safety risks are quite worrying. As such, the discussions about food security shouldn’t only lean on availability and affordability. More emphasis should be placed on quality and safety. This task lies squarely on the shoulders of everyone – consumers, food producers and regulators.

Consumers should be more discerning about the food they eat. Food processors should also do more to improve the safety of the products they put on the market and be responsible with food labelling. Similarly, the regulators, particularly the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, should continue working closely with the Department of Health in ensuring consumers’ needs. DM

Wandile Sihlobo is head of agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) in South Africa. Twitter: @WandileSihlobo

Photo: Officials from South Africa’s Department of Agriculture take a mouth swab from an ostrich during testing for avian influenza on a farm near Somerset East in the country's Eastern Cape Province, Wednesday 11 August 2004, following an outbreak of bird flu in the area. Photo: EPA/Jon Hrusa

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