Food production, processing, and marketing systems are complex. In many developing countries they are also highly fragmented and dependent upon a large number of small producers. While this may have socioeconomic benefits, as large quantities of food pass through a multitude of food handlers and middlemen, the risk of exposing food to unhygienic environments, contamination and adulteration increases. Problems occur as a result of poor post-harvest handling, processing and storage of food and also due to inadequate facilities and infrastructure such as the absence or shortage of safe water supply, electricity, storage facilities including cold stores, and transport facilities and networks, etc. Furthermore, a majority of food producers and handlers lack appropriate knowledge and expertise in the application of modern agricultural practices, food hygiene, and good food handling practices.
This does not mean that all food from such sources is unsafe. Many traditional food production and handling practices have in-built food safety margins based on years of experience. Problems arise because of the inability to cope with the introduction of emerging intensive agricultural practices, increasing urbanization, stress on natural resources, and new food safety risks.
The food processing industry in developing countries ranges from sophisticated state-of-the-art facilities to small artisanal operations producing traditional foods for the local community. The size of these processing units is quite variable - from a few large plants to a majority of small and cottage scale units with very limited resources for effective technological inputs. At the least developed end of this continuum, these premises are ill equipped to deal with the maintenance of food safety and quality in a scientific and sustained manner. Governments often support these small units as they provide employment and generate income for their operators. The challenge for developing countries is to provide incentives for the effective expansion of these small units so they may absorb better technology.
Food processors in developing countries also face problems with the reliability and timely delivery of raw material, as well as variations in overall quality. Smallholders usually produce raw materials, and a lack of infrastructure in the producing areas results in variability in the quality of these materials. This calls for greater vigilance by the food processing units and for food control activity to be implemented at all stages along the food supply chain.
Studies in developing countries have shown that up to 20-25% of household food expenditure is incurred outside the home, and some segments of the population depend entirely on street foods. This has been one of the consequences of rapid urbanization, with millions of people having no access to a kitchen or other cooking facilities. There are millions of single workers without families and a large floating population who move in and out of the city for work, and these people largely depend upon street foods for their daily sustenance.
In many developing countries, street food vendors are an important component of the food supply chain. Being reasonably priced and conveniently available, street food satisfies a vital need of the urban population. These ready-to-eat foods and beverages are prepared and/or sold by vendors or hawkers mainly in streets or other convenient public places such as around places of work, schools, hospitals, railway stations, and bus terminals.
Food safety is a major concern with street foods. These foods are generally prepared and sold under unhygienic conditions, with limited access to safe water, sanitary services, or garbage disposal facilities. Hence street foods pose a high risk of food poisoning due to microbial contamination, as well as improper use of food additives, adulteration and environmental contamination.
Food control infrastructure in many developing countries tends to be inadequate, due to limited resources and often poor management. Food control laboratories are frequently poorly equipped and lack suitably trained analytical staff. This is accentuated where multiple agencies are involved in food control. A lack of overall strategic direction means that limited resources are not properly utilized. Food control systems may also suffer from poorly or inadequately developed compliance policies.
Modern food control systems call for science-based and transparent decision-making processes, and require access to qualified and trained personnel in disciplines such as food science and technology, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, veterinary science, medicine, epidemiology, agricultural sciences, quality assurance, auditing and food law. Food control authorities need to better appreciate the role of science in the risk-based approach, and to take advantage of scientific resources in the international community.
The need for technical assistance in strengthening food control systems in developing countries is well recognized. FAO and WHO are the two main specialized agencies of the United Nations involved in food quality and safety technical cooperation programmes with developing countries.
FAO assistance in food control and food standards is a major activity and is delivered at global, regional, and country levels. Published manuals of food quality control cover a range of different aspects of food control systems and are used internationally. Meetings, seminars and workshops are conducted in all regions of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, the Near East and North Africa. Technical assistance is provided in many areas such as the following:
Establishing or strengthening national food control systems and infrastructure;
Assistance in preparation of food law and regulations;
Workshops on developing national strategies for food control;
Assistance in establishing or improving food analysis capabilities;
Assessing the implications of SPS and TBT Agreements (see Annex 5);
Providing training in food inspection, analysis and food handling;
Providing training of trainers in HACCP;
Providing training in management of food control systems; and
Assistance in strengthening National Codex Committees (see Annex 4).
WHO has in recent years substantially increased the priority of its food safety activities at international and regional level. The Organization also provides technical assistance at international, regional, and country levels. Under its decentralized structure, WHO is divided into six regions, with Regional Offices responsible for providing assistance to Member States in developing and strengthening their National Food Safety Programmes. Regional Offices currently undertake a range of capacity building initiatives designed to safeguard consumer health. The nature and extent of these activities is influenced by available resources, but includes the following.
Developing regional and national food safety policy and strategies;
Preparation of food legislation, food regulations and standards, and codes of hygienic practice;
Implementation of food inspection programmes;
Promoting methods and technologies designed to prevent foodborne diseases, including the application of the HACCP system;
Developing or enhancing food analysis capability;
Development and delivery of hygiene training and education programmes;
Establishing healthy markets and enhancing the safety of street food; and
Promoting the establishment of foodborne disease surveillance activity.
Both the SPS Agreement (Article 9) and TBT Agreement (Article 11) specifically refer to the need to provide technical assistance to developing countries. Such assistance may be in areas of processing technologies, research and infrastructure, establishment of national regulatory bodies, etc. In particular, developed countries which import food from developing nations are required, upon request, to provide technical assistance to the developing exporting countries to enable these countries to meet their SPS or TBT obligations in international food trade. Details of the SPS and TBT Agreements are contained in Annex 5. This new opportunity to access technical assistance under the WTO Agreements has not yet been fully utilized by developing countries.
Technical assistance in the food control area may also be obtained through the World Bank, other development banks, and from bilateral donor agencies. Access to such funds is dependent upon the priority that developing countries attach to strengthening their food control systems as reflected in their national development plans.