28 January 2015
A compilation of 25 studies in Africa has found that informal markets provide essential sources of food and income for millions of poor people, with milk and meat that is often safer than supermarkets.
Misguided efforts to control the alarming burden of food-related illnesses in low- income countries risk intensifying malnutrition and poverty – while doing little to improve food safety. Blunt crack-downs on informal milk and meat sellers that are a critical source of food and income for millions of people are not the solution.
This is a key finding of a book released on 27 January by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its partners, called Food Safety and Informal Markets: Animal Products in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study investigates traditional or informal markets in food products. These are often called wet markets because they use so much water in cleaning as a result of the perishable and often contaminated nature of the foods they sell.
These venues sell most of the livestock and fish products consumed in Africa. And they are growing rapidly as rising populations and incomes drive greater demand for meat and milk. While the food sold in informal markets is often safe, they are suspected of spreading dangerous pathogens ranging from salmonella and E.coli to severe acute respiratory syndrome, avian influenza and tuberculosis. But ILRI researchers warn that the push for greater food safety standards in these markets must be informed by an understanding of their vital role as a provider of food and income to several hundred million people who rank among the world’s poorest.
“Our work across eight countries found that we are right to be concerned about food safety in informal markets – from milk in Mali, to fish in Ghana, to chicken in Mozambique, to beef in Kenya – particularly for spreading gastrointestinal diseases that are a leading cause of sickness and death in developing countries,” said Delia Grace, the programme leader for food safety and zoonoses at ILRI.
“But it also shows that we are wrong to think that we can just adopt solutions developed in wealthy countries that favour large commercial operations over small producers. That will just exacerbate hunger and further limit money-earning options for the poor.”
In most developing countries, more than 80% of livestock product purchases occur at informal markets and in places where there is no formal alternative such as a western-style supermarket close at hand. And the studies find that this is unlikely to change for decades to come.
Importantly, the studies in east and southern Africa have found that where supermarkets are an option, because of a poorly patrolled chain of custody between producer and seller, milk and meat sold in supermarkets may pose a greater health threat than what is sold in traditional markets.
Moreover, small producers have many attractions for poor consumers: they are typically within walking distance for people who lack cars and they offer the opportunity to purchase fresh food in small amounts; they also often will extend credit and typically offer the traditional foods their customers prefer. “We need to understand how much disease is caused by unsafe milk and meat in low- income countries and also how much they contribute in terms of nutrition and income,” said Kristina Roesel, the co-coordinator of the Safe Food, Fair Food Project at ILRI. “We need to understand the complete picture so we can work to improve food safety without harming food and economic security.”
The main lesson from research on food safety issues in Africa, the authors say, is that in the developing world, “policymakers need to look to the facts, not just the fears, before moving to curtail meat sales at the local wet market or purchases of unpasteurised milk from traditional street vendors”.
Hazards are not always risks
A key finding is that it is important to separate potential hazards – bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals and toxins – from the real-world risks they are likely to present to consumers. Data from sites across East Africa, for example, have found that the raw, unpasteurised milk commonly available from street vendors and traditional markets may contain many health hazards. Yet the actual risks to consumers may be negligible given the common practice in this region of boiling milk before consuming it.
“Food safety policy should be guided by rigorous research to understand the ways food is produced and consumed in different societies so we can devise strategies that are most likely to reduce the risks, particularly to poor consumers,” said Roesel.
For example, training informal milk vendors in Kenya and offering them incentives to improve milk handling practices that can transmit diseases such as brucellosis, tuberculosis and diarrhoea generated lasting benefits worth US$28-million a year.