Food safety and nutrition are key elements of a healthy food system and play important roles in contributing towards public health. There is a common misperception that food safety and nutrition are two separate things; however, they are closely linked. Food safety is all about hazardous material in food (naturally occurring or added) that can cause illness, whilst nutrition is the good stuff in food that is essential for keeping our body healthy.
In my early research, I spent many years studying food-borne aflatoxins (toxins in food that are produced by fungi) and their adverse impact on child health. I was involved in food safety risk assessment for international authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority and China Food Safety Authority. Everything I did focused on food safety; nutrition was rarely touched on in my work. Gradually, it became clear to me that food safety and nutrition are closely interrelated and cannot stand apart when we evaluate our food system and health system. Food must be both safe and nutritious to satisfy our essential need to maintain health. Unsafe food causes damage to our gut and metabolism, reducing nutrient uptake; spoiled food can often be accompanied by inferior nutritional value.
On the other hand, adequate and balanced nutrition can be more complex than simply supplementing one’s diet with various micro-nutrients. For example, whilst vitamin D deficiency is common today and many require supplementation, over-dosing with vitamin D can cause bone pain and kidney stones. Vitamin A overdose also causes health problems. Furthermore, when looking at contemporary issues such as high sugar consumption or the use of the artificial sweetener aspartame, a possible cancer-causing substance, one is left questioning whether the ultra-processing of food is a nutrition crisis or a food safety disaster. There are more and more takeaway foods and pre-packaged meals available, but what are the hidden nutrition and food safety problems associated with these?
The Committee on World Food Security gives the following definition of food and nutrition security: “Food and nutrition security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is safe and consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for a healthy and active life.” Food and nutrition security demands that everybody has a basic right to access safe and nutritious food; however, owing to conflicts, extreme weather events, and economic downturns, food and nutrition insecurity are increasingly becoming a great concern. Globally, it is estimated that up to 118 million people lived in hunger in 2020. Around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030. This is particularly true on the African continent.
A balanced, combined approach to food safety and nutrition is thus critical. Reducing food waste, creating food banks, and even switching “best by” dates to “sell by” dates are some of the ways to tackle the food and nutrition insecurity crisis. Whilst nutritional needs may possibly be met, simultaneously ensuring food safety is a new challenge. This is particularly concerning in regions and populations where food safety legislation is not in place, or even if in place, enforcement is poor. Another case to exemplify the issue is the overuse or abuse of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture to achieve higher food production to supply enough for human nutritional needs. The unexpected consequence of this approach, however, is toxic chemical contamination of our food, water and soil, leading to adverse impacts on human, animal, and environmental health.
I have been participating in the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) project as a mentor. The project aims to strengthen research capacity in Africa by training early-career researchers in food systems research skills and enhancing their capacity for food policy advocacy. Together with academics from the University of Pretoria, and our mentee, a bright young lecturer from the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, Dr Roselyne Alphonce, we form a research triad. Roselyne is interested in research on consumer behaviour and purchasing power. In collaboration with her mentors, she developed a research project studying how consumers’ perceptions on food safety and nutrition might affect their purchase of food as well as how government food safety and nutrition labelling policies might influence consumer food choice and food-purchasing behaviour. The research is being implemented through consumer surveys and stakeholder focus-group interviews. It is expected that the study will identify key food safety nutrition concerns that influence Tanzanian consumers’ food purchasing choices. It is exciting to be a part of a project that can potentially have a great impact in helping to shape food safety and nutrition policies.
The FSNet-Africa project and other similar activities will enhance research capacity, support development of advanced and innovative agri-food technology on the African continent, strengthen stakeholder involvement, and influence policy. This can have a far-reaching impact on global food security. Despite the numerous challenges faced, these types of initiatives can contribute to the goal of the world population ultimately having equal access to both nutritious and safe food.