In many cases, high rates of foodborne illness are associated with low levels of general economic development and, more specifically, limited capacity to control the safety of the food supply.
—“The Economics of Food Safety in Developing Countries,” The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations
Over the last decade, food safety has been prioritized as a legitimate concern among many developing countries. Partially, this is due to the increasing rates of foodborne illness, heightening consumer apprehension about food safety, and the scope of media attention that public health concerns receive in industrialized countries.
Since developed countries can struggle with the issue of food safety, underdeveloped nations—often handicapped by limited resources, a lack of consistent government oversight, and a lack of education and technical expertise—struggle to an even greater degree. This article focuses on food safety trends in developing countries, including potential solutions to the problems they face.
An Economic Perspective
Producing, processing, and marketing food is a multifaceted process that requires considerable capital expenditure to develop and maintain. As such, low-income countries often do not possess the resources necessary to invest in complex infrastructures, including an adequate and effective food supply network. Consequently, the ability to mitigate many of the risk factors that cause foodborne illness does not exist in developing parts of the world.
The development and implementation of food safety mechanisms at the national level are extremely capital-intensive. The United States government, for example, has several federal agencies to manage myriad food safety mechanisms, spending billions of dollars in the process. Smaller nations also apportion considerable resources to their respective food safety apparatuses.
The inability of developing countries to ensure a hygienic food supply has a number of costly consequences. First and foremost, a country’s citizens are at-risk on a daily basis—a particular concern in developing countries, which especially need productive workers to support the economy. Second, an undependable food safety chain limits a country’s export capacity to sell its goods, further handicapping economic prospects.
Economic globalization increases pressure on developing nations to improve food safety. As mentioned, an unreliable and unhygienic food supply is detrimental to a country’s ability to sell its goods. This is particularly consequential for countries that are agriculture-rich and infrastructure-poor. A developing nation’s underperforming export market is complicated further by allowing food imports to market—an appeasement for the country’s middle class, who expect higher quality, safer food products.
Developing countries that seek to improve their economies, particularly those that rely heavily on agriculture, must make it a priority to develop and maintain a quality food safety infrastructure. Of course, doing so requires considerable investment—a requirement that may rule out some nations. However, some developing countries are becoming able to make the necessary investments to help ensure an adequate food safety network.
For developing countries that have the capacity to invest in a reliable food safety network, a comprehensive food safety plan and regulatory regime must be developed. For this purpose, there exist a number of agencies that assist developing nations with both the monetary and technical considerations of food supply infrastructure. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), for example, provides expertise in food control systems.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has strongly prioritized and enhanced its international food safety activities. As with the FAO, WHO also provides both monetary and technical assistance to developing nations. WHO comprises six regional offices, all of which are responsible for assisting member states in the development and solidification of their food safety programs.
Finally, the World Bank has set up the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP)—capital allocated specifically for the development of food safety controls in underdeveloped countries. GFSP is a public-private investment fund that partners with industry officials, local governments, regulatory agencies, and individual agriculturalists to devise solutions for developing nations’ food safety networks.
Despite the resources that can aid in developing food safety infrastructure, some developing countries do not take full advantage. Corruption and a lack of organizational leadership can stall efforts to create and maintain a food safety regime.
Food safety is paramount to developing nations for a variety of reasons, including public health, economic growth, and poverty alleviation. The development and maintenance of successful food safety networks in underdeveloped countries can help lift people out of poverty, expand international trade, improve quality of life, and reduce mortality rates.
There is considerable difficulty in aligning available resources with each nation’s individual needs, particularly in countries where political corruption is widespread. Thus, various organizations (e.g., GFSP) have emphasized the importance of partnerships in tackling what amounts to an extremely complex and considerable challenge: the widespread adoption of food safety networks in developing countries.