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The mystery of the missing food safety agency

Since the deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2018, FairPlay has been calling for a national food safety agency to give South African consumers increased protection against contaminated or sub-standard food.

That year we thought the call had been heeded when President Cyril Ramaphosa told parliament that a food safety agency was imminent. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened, but the need remains.

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic bringing public health issues to the fore, FairPlay has repeated its call, in newspaper articles and this month in an online discussion with journalists.

The issues are twofold. Firstly, South Africa needs to ensure that its food safety standards are world class, constantly updated and rigorously enforced, with transgressors in any part of the food chain identified and punished. Secondly, food safety is currently the responsibility of three government departments – Health, Agriculture and Trade and Industry – as well as multiple municipalities.

A statutory food safety agency would bring all of this under one roof, ensuring the highest standards of regulatory control and testing throughout the country. It would give the public increased confidence that the food they buy is safe.

FairPlay founder Francois Baird noted in an article in Business Report that “As the coronavirus and listeria outbreaks showed, disease can strike suddenly and with deadly force. Countries must prepare for the unexpected and take steps to protect themselves”. 

Parliament should finish the job it started

South Africa recognised the need for a national food safety agency more than two decades ago, and parliament has done much work on the detail. The delay is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.

The groundwork has been laid through the work of an inter-departmental parliamentary committee, unfortunately now disbanded. This food safety co-ordinating committee, comprising the portfolio committees on agriculture, health and trade and industry, was set up in 2012. By 2019 it had worked on developing an integrated food safety framework and the establishment of a food safety agency.

Then, after the 2019 elections, the joint committee was not re-established. The work it has done sits gathering dust on some parliamentary shelf.

FairPlay has written to the Speaker of Parliament requesting her to look again at the matter, so that the committee can be revived to complete its task and present its recommendations to parliament and the nation.

How would this food safety agency work?

FairPlay favours the idea of an independent food safety agency, rather than yet another government body.

We have proposed an independent organisation, comprising both government officials and private sector specialists – scientists, food safety experts, food industry representatives and senior officials from the various government departments responsible for good safety, including the customs department. In addition, we would like to see civil society consumer and food safety bodies serving on the agency’s board.

We also recommend an organisation with teeth – one having the ability to investigate lapses and recommend the prosecution of companies and individuals and the closure of food establishments. 

Perhaps a reconstituted parliamentary committee could look at a working example – Ireland’s Food Safety Authority, established by an act of parliament in 1998. The Irish body does not include government department representatives, but it has significant powers of enforcement.

The information is available, locally and internationally. Research has been done, the work has been started. Time to finish the job.

The poor suffer most from food safety lapses

When food is sub-standard or contaminated, lower income households are disproportionately affected. This point was emphasised once again in a FairPlay discussion with journalists last week.

Lowest quality food is likely to be the cheapest, and bought by people with the lowest incomes. It is they who need the most protection from a powerful food safety agency.

Also raised was the thawing, repackaging and refreezing of bulk imports of chicken portions. The poultry master plan identifies this practice as a food safety risk and recommends that it be stopped.

As FairPlay has pointed out previously, while the best food handlers take every precaution, the risks remain. And unscrupulous outfits that cut corners and ignore safety regulations will sell repackaged food cheaply to those with the least to spend. Again, it is the poor who are most at risk.

The “slow violence” of malnutrition and stunting

For more on South Africa’s child stunting crisis, watch a recording of our webinar “Our Stunted Children”.

An under-reported tragedy in South Africa is the fact that 27% – more than quarter – of children under 5 years of age are stunted. Stunting, caused by malnutrition, affects them both physically and often mentally for the rest of their lives. 

As the authoritative Child Gauge report points out, the “slow violence of malnutrition” that results in stunting is caused by household food insecurity. This in turn results from the “grotesque” inequities in South Africa, which has higher stunting rates than some of its poorer neighbouring countries. Those who suffer most are those who can least afford it.

Another theme that FairPlay has raised is the link between food insecurity and dumped chicken imports. Dumped imports are predatory – designed to displace local producers and therefore kill local jobs. If foreign chicken producers succeed, as they did in Ghana, in addition to devastating families and communities, they will demolish the local chicken industry. They will have pricing power, can charge what they like, and can switch supplies to another country if it proves more profitable for them.

The campaign to prevent dumping – and the local industry’s current application for anti-dumping duties against Brazil and four European Union countries – is designed to prevent this from happening in South Africa.

Food security means that South Africa needs to be self-sufficient in the production of chicken, which is the country’s most popular and most affordable meat protein. It means food security not only at a national level, but also at a household level.

We cannot become dependent on the whims of foreign producers or the vagaries of exchange rates.

More affordable protein, available to more people particularly in poor rural areas, is essential if we are to address the scourge of stunting, which afflicts millions of children and threatens the country’s future.

Image credits:

1. Electron micrograph of a flagellated Listeria monocytogenes bacterium. Listeria monocytogenes is the infectious agent responsible for the food borne illness Listeriosis. Photo: Elizabeth White CDC.

2. FairPlay has written to Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Thandi Modise, (pictured) requesting that parliament complete its work to establish a food safety agency. Image courtesy of the South African Government. CC BY-ND 2.0

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