SA food safety in jeopardy

Gareth Lloyd-Jones, MD of Ecowize, a health and sanitation company that services the food and beverage sector, believes South Africa needs a dedicated food control agency to ensure that regulations for imported food are adequately monitored.

SA food safety in jeopardy
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Late last year Brazil reported a case of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), after tests conducted by the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) confirmed the presence of the protein that causes mad cow disease in the tissue of a cow that died in the southern state of Parana in 2010. Questions were asked as to why it took Brazil two years to report the suspected BSE.

Reported cases of BSE come with serious repercussions, including meat products being banned from international markets and agriculture carrying out required BSE mitigation measures. Since South Africa’s food safety strategy relies on timeous reporting of any problems from the country of origin, delays in reporting the incidence of a disease such as suspected atypical BSE should raise some red flags. The Brazilian incident is an example of a bigger problem concerning the non-compliance of international import/ export health and safety standards to South Africa.

Global value chain
The current horse meat scandal in Europe has placed the monitoring of meat firmly in the spotlight. South Africa, a player in international trade, is involved in the export and import of various animal and animal origin products. Meat products are inspected by veterinary authorities at the port of entry. Although meat production standards are high in South Africa and the countries from which we import, there is currently no independent agency to monitor the maintenance of standards. This puts the safety of the meat products on our shelves at risk.

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The problem is not necessarily with local food safety standards, but rather with the gap between what is expected of importers compared to local industry regulations. Importers should be subject to the same regulations that govern the local meat industry. Vets, working as inspectors for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), responsible for inspecting imported food, are no doubt committed to their jobs, but we have simply not kept up with the new approach worldwide to apply a global value chain approach to food safety.

Food production has globalised as countries focus on producing and exporting products they manufacture most efficiently and importing products that are difficult to farm. This globalisation has elongated the supply chain of agricultural products. With increasing trade, some countries have developed double standards that require importers to adhere to far stricter food safety regulations than those expected of their local producers and distributors.

South Africa is falling behind because authorities are not able to efficiently monitor the value chain of food imported into the country. Local authorities will, for example, not check whether or not a product was transported in a way that would ensure food safety. Essentially, we rely on the fact that the overseas department of agriculture or their local inspectors did their work correctly, when we monitor the required import documentation at the port of entry.

Capacity constraints
When it comes to the surveillance of imported products we have capable, dedicated people and stringent import control measures in place, but we are not on the same level as other countries with monitoring of imports, to make sure that these measures are implemented. In 2008, the South African government acknowledged that as a result of significant import growth into South Africa the infrastructure that we had in place was not adequate, and it was decided that South Africa needed a food safety control agency.

Ideally every container coming through customs should be inspected, but we simply do not have the capacity to do that, so spot checks are conducted and officials check the relevant documentation. They will take, for example, five samples when 30 would be better.Checking is not done vigorously enough and that has got nothing to do with legislation; it’s a capacity problem.

Food control agency
In 2008, the parliamentary oversight committee for trade and industry adopted a recommendation that a food safety agency should be established. The committee instructed the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to expedite the establishment of such an agency, but since then nothing has happened. According to the Meat Safety Act of 2000, an independent meat inspectorate should have been established, but this has not happened either.

I believe a food control agency should be established under the DTI, but as an independent agency made up of permanent office bearers. The agency should co-operate with various industry experts to assist it in its duties. Such an agency should undertake to monitor certain linkages between the various government departments that impact on food safety, making sure there is better collaboration between different departments which deal with food safety issues.

The food control agency would link the DAFF (responsible for inspection services) the Department of Health (responsible for food labelling), DTI and customs. It will also drive the creation of better infrastructure around global food supply chain imports and setting better standards for meat imports into the country, as well as monitoring the implementation of standards.

Supply and prices
Factors such as distance travelled and a longer supply chain can compromise the quality and traceability of imported meat products. Questions need to be asked about the length (in terms of time elapsed) of supply chains. At the moment, meat products can remain in the supply chain for up to two years. This holds serious implications for food safety, and affects food prices, putting unfair pressure on local producers.

For example, a chicken grown out for a cost of R11 due to favourable maize prices can be slaughtered, frozen and exported 12 months later. By this time the maize price may have increased with a subsequent increased cost of growing out locally produced chicken. The imported chicken will then enter the market at a lower price than the production cost to local producers, forcing them to cut prices to the point where they are no longer financially sustainable.

Consumer education
The general awareness of food safety in South Africa is very poor. As with most things in life, no one cares until it is too late. If there is no public scare, if people do not die because of food-borne diseases that could have been avoided with proper food safety checks in place, no one pays attention. Many food related health scares go unnoticed. To a degree, South African consumers are complacent and uncomplaining, but this has to do with limited public knowledge in the field of food safety.

Consumers need education, especially those in lower income groups as the risk exists that these people will be taken advantage of since they have a low level of understanding about these issues. Until consumers become better educated and more aware, they need to be protected and, right now, they are reliant on effective policing. – Denene Erasmus.

Contact Gareth Lloyd-Jones of Ecowize on 021 551 6386 or email [email protected]
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.