FAO in Uganda

It is not food if it is not safe: Advocating for food safety and quality assurance to improve Uganda’s economy and people’s health

A farmer and member of Ruhimbo Farmer Field School in Isingiro District displays local variety beans during a national agriculture show. Empowering farmers to produce food safely is essential for food and income security.

Experts in food safety and quality assurance in Uganda have resolved to implement a nationwide campaign for food safety and quality assurance, to increase public awareness of the critical importance of ready access to safe and nutritious food for sustainable human development. Representatives from Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), civil society, development agencies, the private sector and academia agreed to develop a national evidence-building report that clearly defines the magnitude, consequences and required actions to address food safety and quality. The experts deliberated on weighty issues of food safety and quality assurance during a two-day workshop on 5-6 December 2022 in Mbale City. They committed to working closely with legislators to make food safety and quality assurance a national legislative and development priority.

The workshop was organized by civil society organization- Consumer Education Trust (CONSENT), with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), under the framework of the European Union-funded project, “The Food and Nutrition Security Impact, Resilience, Sustainability and Transformation (FIRST). The workshop aimed at increasing awareness and consciousness of consumer protection, food safety and quality assurance to enhance sustainable production and consumption of healthy diets and inclusive human capital development. Food safety plays a critical role across the four dimensions of food security – availability, access, utilization and stability.

While officiating at the workshop, Moses Mulengani, the Assistant Commissioner for Policy Coordination and Implementation at the Office of the Prime Minister, underscored the importance of consumer protection as a core milestone in achieving a competitive economy, given the rich agroecological heritage and diverse food culture in Uganda. He elaborated on the link between the surge in chronic non-communicable diseases and related mortality in the country with the increasing concerns and reports on unsafe and poor-quality food on the market. 

Jean-Marie Byakweli, a Policy and Food Systems Officer who represented the FAO Uganda Representative, stressed the importance of food safety and quality assurance as game changer in any country’s quest to transform food systems. Byakweli noted that a country's agrifood system is measured by its ability to guarantee sustainable access to and supply of safe and nutritious food to its population.

“Uganda has huge potential for inclusive economic and human development if the apparent challenges of unsafe food arising from poor post-harvest and food safety handling are fixed”, he said. “The opportunity cost on the economy of not fixing food safety issues is so high; yet Uganda is a rich food basket that could feed many economies in Africa and the rest of the world”, he added. He called for increased technical and financial support to strengthen the capacity of national and local government institutions to deal with food safety and quality assurance at all levels of the food chain.

Unsafe food takes a huge toll on human health and the economy

Food safety and quality assurance are major enablers of local food systems across the world and are crucial in guaranteeing a stable global food supply system, national economic growth and sustainable development. However, every year, globally, over 420 000 people die and some 600 million people – almost one in ten – fall ill after eating contaminated food. In fact, foodborne hazards cause over 200 acute and chronic diseases from digestive tract infections to cancer. The ramifications of the cost of unsafe food, go far beyond human suffering; affecting socioeconomic development, overloading healthcare systems and compromising economic growth, trade and tourism. Opportunities in an increasingly-globalized food market are lost to countries unable to meet international food safety standards. Food safety threats cause an enormous burden on economies; from disruptions or restrictions in global and regional agri-food trade, loss of food and associated income and wasted natural resources.

According to the Uganda Ministry of Health, the burden of foodborne diseases is about 1.3 million cases, constituting 14 percent of all cases treated annually. The commonest foodborne-related conditions are typhoid, brucellosis, bacillus dysentery, cholera and aflatoxin contamination. According to the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), before the COVID-19 pandemic, between 45 to 65 percent of samples in major maize-producing districts contained aflatoxin levels exceeding the national standard whose maximum limit is 10 parts per billion for total aflatoxins. This problem hinders international trade since some countries and markets have lower minimum for aflatoxin. By 2018, aflatoxin contamination was reported to have reduced economic growth by 0.26 percent in Uganda. The country lost USD 577 million annually as a result of about 3 700 aflatoxin-induced liver cancer cases.

Blaise Ouattara- Food Safety Officer at FAO’s Regional Office in Accra, Ghana, observed that the global economic burden of foodborne diseases is increasing. Estimates of 2019/2020 indicate that total productivity loss associated with foodborne diseases in low- and middle-income countries was about USD 95.2 billion per year, and the annual cost of treating foodborne illnesses is estimated at USD 15 billion. He added that Africa was the most affected continent, accounting for over 20 percent of the burden of foodborne illness.

Claire Mason, from the Right to Food Unit at FAO Headquarters in Rome, stressed the importance of consumer protection in the context of the human right to adequate food. She urged actors in Uganda to hasten advocacy efforts to holistically address food safety as a core human rights concern in the journey of food systems transformation.

A special fund to address food safety challenges

Professor Achileo Kaaya, a food scientist from Makerere and Chair of PACA at the African Union, called for the establishment of a special fund to address food safety challenges in Uganda, including the reported limited national capacity required to enforce quality standards.

“We have standards developed by Uganda National Bureau of Standards. The challenge is that they haven’t been implemented due to lack of funds”, Professor Kaaya said. It is imperative that the Government come up with a budget to manage issues of food safety”, he added.

With a special fund in place, there could be increased awareness on how to handle food, advocate for infrastructure such as post-harvest handling facilities and transportation facilities, but also encourage personal hygiene and regular body checks for food handlers among others, added Kaaya.

According to Henry Kimera- Chief Executive of CONSENT, without quality and safe food, Uganda’s economy could stagnate and slide into a recession if the country’s global trade is slowed by the rejection of good based on absence of food safety and quality adherence.

Harriet Nakasi, the National Coordinator for Advocacy Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture noted that consumer education should start from the family unit, and be promoted in primary schools and by religious leaders.