Saturday, 3 June, 2023

Ensuring Safe, Nutritious Food To All

Monica Pradhan


Every citizen is entitled to access safe and nutritious food as it is a prerequisite for good health. With the theme of ‘Our actions are our future: Better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life’, this year’s World Food Day was marked on Saturday. The day is celebrated every year on October 16 to commemorate the inception of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in 1945. The commemoration envisions a sustainable food production system where people, planet and economy can coexist in unison. It is also a gentle reminder that safe food is a fuel for good health and a prosperous nation.

Putting an emphasis on food safety helps to accelerate the outcome of national nutritional goals. In Nepal, the Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan (MSNP- II (2018–2022) is a visionary policy that aims at achieving nutritional targets which are in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, food serves as a source of nourishment only if it is safe. Furthermore, its implication for health especially that of children under five is even more crucial as growth and development at this phase has a lifelong impact on wellness. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the role of food for boosting immunity in the body. Thus, the importance of food safety is paramount.

Unsafe food
Food is deemed unsafe when its properties are affected in a way that renders it unfit for consumption. Food safety can be challenged at any point in the food chain like growth, harvesting, storage, raw material transit, processing, finished product storage and transportation. Common cause of unsafe food includes poor quality raw materials, adulteration, indiscriminate use of food additives, poor hygiene, under processing, poor storage conditions, etc. Any presence of physical, chemical and microbiological hazards in food can impact its safety.
Physical contaminants like presence of extraneous matters, including stones, straws and insect in food, could lead to choking hazard or internal injury.

Biological contaminants include cross contamination of food with bacteria, yeasts and mold along with inf3estation of insects and pests could have severe health implications. Aflatoxin, a mycotoxin formed by fungal infection in food and feed due to poor storage conditions, can be life-threatening and could result in liver damage. Pathogens often lead to gastrointestinal issues, vomiting, headache or even life threatening conditions. Hence, adequate heat treatment of food and steps to avoid post processing contamination is vital to ensure safe food.
Chemical hazards includes introduction of chemicals in levels that could disrupt body functions and impact metabolic processes including neural system, renal function, liver health and reproductive health. For example, residues of fertiliser, pesticides and veterinary drugs in food in excess of permitted level may have severe health issues. Similarly, repeated use of heated oil increases free radicals in food. This accelerates rancidity which causes impaired digestive function, vomiting, headache, inflammation and even organ damage. Rancid food is also caused by exposing food to light or oxygen over extended period of time.

Unsafe food can lead to impaired health, and loss of money and productive time. For a food producer or processor, any such issue in the public domain could lead to loss of loyal customers, lot rejection and an adverse impact on the brand image. Compliance to applicable regulations helps to avert any such loss. This implies adherence to food product specifications, permitted ingredients, labeling requirement and optimal storage condition as guided by national protocols which is in line with FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius or “Food Code”.
Ensuring safety of food products would require consolidated effort of all stakeholders in the food chain. Food manufacturers should follow government’s guidelines and protocols during processing. For example, adequate heat treatment is important for perishable products like meat and dairy products to ensure food safety. Post processing contamination should be avoided and maintenance of cold chain is crucial in these food products. Use of potable water in food processing is imperative.

Practices like GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), GVP (Good Veterinary Practices), GHP (Good Housekeeping Practices), GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and management systems such as ISO 22000 and ISO 9000 enhance assurance of food safety. Similarly, food safety tools like HACCP helps to identify and prevent risks in the food chain. It is, however, important to review potential food hazards and update the system periodically.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for good personal hygiene and the risk of cross infection and contamination. Food handlers can act as a transmission vehicle for food contaminants. Ready-to-eat foods have to be handled hygienically. Similarly, vegetable salads could be carriers of enteric pathogens and hence have to be prepared and handled in a clean and hygienic manner. Home-grown and freshly cooked food is always a safest option to ensure good health. However, due to constraints of a hectic lifestyle, food choices are changing and dependency on packaged food is increasing. Consumers hence need to be aware of indicators like expiry dates and storage recommendations prescribed in the labels. System certification on food brands also helps consumer to be assured about product safety.

The Food Act, 1967 and Food Rules, 1970 of Nepal are a custodian for safe food. The government has an indispensible role to ensure safety of food products manufactured locally or imported. Monitoring and updating product specifications, implementing applicable code of practices, increasing awareness on food safety are some of its key functions.

Way ahead
Food safety and nutrition is an imperative aspect of a healthy diet. Unsafe food endangers health. The significance of its nutritive component is also diminished. It is therefore, very important that stakeholders in the food chain, including farmers, cooperatives, manufactures, retailers and government bodies, should come together to improve the existing systems.
There is a need to increase awareness about the adoption of manufacturing practices. In this regard, organic farming could be encouraged and awareness on the benefits of such close to natural food should be increased. Similarly, at the industry level, quality control of raw materials, online process control and finished product inspections are key aspects that need stringent control to ensure food safety. Effective implementation of Food Safety Management System in food manufacturing and food service enterprises should always be emphasised.

Monitoring safety and quality of food is crucial function of the government. It has an important role in raising awareness about food safety and providing technical support to food producers and processors. Enhancing capacity of the government agencies in this regard needs to be prioritised. Consumers who are the end-users of food must be careful about their food choices and habits.
Every stakeholder in the food chain must be aware of their responsibility to contribute to safe food. The support of development partners, including NGOs and international agencies, in these areas is pivotal. Safe and nutritious food is the building blocks of good health. So, food safety should never be compromised as every healthy citizen is an asset to the nation.

(The author is a food technologist.