Food and Water Safety

Background

Consumption of unsafe food and water continue to be one of the major causes of preventable malnutrition, disease, and death. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) estimates that 3 to 3.5 million hectares of agricultural land in developing countries are being irrigated with raw or diluted wastewater (Scott et al., 2004). It has been widely documented that the use of untreated wastewater generates several health risks, such as intestinal parasites like worms, which affect farmers and their families; bacterial and viral infections, that might lead to cholera and typhoid epidemics, as well as cancer and congenital problems (ibid). The World Health Organization (WHO) reports an estimated 1.7 million deaths and 54.2 million disability adjusted life years (DALYs) lost worldwide per year due to unsafe water, lack of hygiene and insufficient sanitation (Jalan et al 2003). Food and water safety also have implications on livelihoods assets other than human capital, most notably on livestock. Consumption of unsafe food (e.g. mycotoxin contaminated maize) and water by livestock as well as various livestock diseases (e.g., avian flu, BSE) have been found to badly affect the livestock productivity and through it the livelihoods of the poor.

The demand for food and water safety typically materializes at higher income levels. For example, Delgado (2005) suggests that not until consumers’ income increases to above US$10 a day that they begin to be able to afford to pay for certain food safety attributes. Since 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) are living on less than US$1.25 a day (Ravallion and Chen, 2008), it may take the poor a long time to reach this turning point, especially if they are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. Even if incomes rise to this level, many developing country consumers are currently unaware of the health risks associated with unsafe food and water. This lack of information results not only in the consumers’ lack of adoption of measures to minimize the health risks themselves, but also in the absence of a price premium for safer food, which if existed could motivate producers to implement food safety risk reducing practices.

At the same time poor producers and consumers are more vulnerable when food safety concerns translate into food safety standards, adhering to which require the implementation of costly procedures that are generally not matched with commensurate price premium. Poor producers may not have the skills or the financial resources to adopt prescriptive procedures. Furthermore, even if they are trained in the skills and offered credit, there are economies of scale for many food safety measures, which may work against small scale producers and small scale agents along the food supply chain. The costs associated with compliance of increased food safety standards can potentially exclude small scale producers who face four distinct problems: (1) how to produce safe food; (2) how to be recognized as producing safe food; (3) how to identify cost-effective technologies for reducing food safety risks; and (4) how to be competitive vis-a-vis larger producers. In many cases poor consumers cannot afford the higher prices associated with higher production costs to provide higher levels of food safety. Thus, higher standards may lead to reduced consumption of certain foods, implying that the net nutritional effect may be negative. Proposed standards requiring pasteurization of milk in Kenya is one example (Kang’ethe 2005). This is not to propose that standards always harm the poor, just that there is a risk-risk trade-off between food safety and low-cost food supply for the poor that needs to be fully understood when policy decisions regarding food safety standards are being implemented.