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Food safety on your plate | Webinar highlights

Food safety in the vegetables and fruit sector is a joint responsibility of both the public and private sector, of producers, traders, processors, retailers and consumers. Collaboration is required to address systemic obstacles to food safety, particularly the promotion of good agricultural practices, the access to and affordability of safe vegetables and fruit, as well as the need for more awareness of the importance of food safety. These were among the key highlights of a practice-based webinar on September 3rd "Lessons learned and innovative solutions for improving food safety of fresh vegetables and fruits for both export and domestic markets".

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Safety as a complex system challenge

Food safety is vital to the achievement of food and nutrition security and economic progress in any country. Unfortunately, large volumes of vegetables and fruits do not meet the quality and safety standards which most export markets and domestic consumers demand. Boosting safety in the horticulture sector is a complex, systemic challenge, which requires bold action by producers, traders, processors, storage units, retailers and consumers. No actor can do this on their own, and all need to put an effort to make sure the whole system works towards safe food for all. The private and the public sector need to collaborate, and the education sector and research partners can contribute to innovative solutions too.

Food safety measures are part and parcel of good agricultural practices at the horticulture production level. Producers need to have the knowledge and skills to apply safety measures while being aware of the risks of toxic products and pathogens, and of the quality and safety of inputs used. Guidance and support to horticultural producers is provided through different service providers and institutions. In addition, food safety measures are applied in other parts of the value chain, for example using a controlled logistics system; using traceability software; training stakeholders; and applying innovative pricing systems.

Challenges relate to the cost of compliance to safety standards, and the impact thereof on farmers’ incomes and consumer market prices. A higher price for a safe product is common practice in most countries in Africa, though this reality is not in accordance with the right of all consumers to safe food. Another challenge is to have the right traceability systems in place; these are key to implement safety standards across the value chain. In addition, there is a need to create awareness about the importance of food safety among different stakeholder groups. Finally, there are institutional challenges. Several countries have seen the creation of multi-stakeholder platforms during multi-annual horticulture programmes, which can play an effective and relevant role in addressing food safety across the system. But these platforms themselves are not always (financially) sustainable beyond the programme lifecycle.

Market dynamics and food safety

In online breakout group discussions participants observed that many consumers are aware about safe food, but that the higher price for safe products is often an obstacle. “Food safety for now is a luxury. Bottom of the Piramid consumers are caring for a meal, that's their first concern.” They also recommended that the food safety awareness and action of processors and traders be higher on the agenda. The power of ‘market queens’ may hinder improvement of safety in some markets, hence, creative solutions may be needed that fit within the practice of vegetables and fruits value chains. Applying quality and safety standards may raise the cost of production in the short term; but in the longer term this may be different, when externalities are incorporated in the product price.

Meeting the consumers’ demand for safe food

Sylvia Kuria runs an organic shop in Nairobi, Silvia’s Basket, which sources from 20 organic farmers, many of whom are women and youth, and supplies organic food to more than eighty homes per week. The company invested in training 1,000 other farmers, and works with a quality logistics partner. From experience, Ms. Kuria observes a growing consumer awareness on the negative effects of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which explains their increasing demand for safe food. Farmers are willing to learn how to grow safe food but often do not have access to information, markets and a constant supply of water to produce safe food. And financial resources lack to provide technical assistance to small scale farmers. Still, Sylvia’s Basket is optimistic that in the near future they will be able to expand its client base and to buy organic farm produce from 200 farmers.

Presentation Sylvia Kuria

Food safety measures during processing and transport

The business model of Goshen Farm Exporters Ltd is based on value addition to products provided by over 4,000 smallholder farmers, amongst others through drying and packaging of fresh fruit, for both domestic and export markets. The food safety measures include contract farming combined with traceability software, farmer capacity building training, a controlled logistic chain and farmers’ certification on a cost share basis. Among the lessons Mr Muli learnt in practice is that getting an audit by a certification body is costly, and that legislation is key. Many consumers are not really aware of the importance of food safety, they assume ‘it looks good, so it will be safe’. Another complication is that international investors from the US or the EU for example, tend to concentrate on food safety measures for products destined for export markets, more than on those for the domestic markets.

Presentation Goshen Farm

Ghana Green Label

Food safety is among the key challenges of the Ghanaian horticulture sector, explains Ms. Sheila Assibey-Yeboah, project manager of the multi-stakeholder HortiFresh programme in Ghana. This programme, supported by the Netherlands’ Embassy, aims to build a sustainable and internationally competitive Fruit & Vegetable Sector, and invested in several food safety efforts. The latter include a Food Safety Taskforce, a collaboration between public and private partners streamlining food safety monitoring and enforcement; the active engagement on food safety matters with a/o. the Food and Drugs Authority; an EU Exports Taskforc; and integrating a comprehensive certification scheme within the fruits and vegetables landscape.

In the course of the programme, partners learnt that a well-functioning food safety system needs both public and private investment, which in Ghana is not (yet) the case. Rolling out food safety standards to cover fruits and vegetables for all segments of consumers remains a challenge. Consumer awareness about food safety is important, while there needs to be proper training for farmers to meet a growing demand as well as the appropriate safety standards, and a suitable tracking and tracing system. Mandates and responsibilities of public and private partners need to be clear, while it is important to arrange for sustainability of the public-private Food Safety taskforce.

Presentation Sheila Assibey-Yeboah