GLOBAL – A recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication has described how certain food safety considerations need to be taken into account to ensure acceptable health outcomes in situations where the impact of food insecurity is mitigated through food aid.

Food security exists when people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. Therefore, food safety is closely interlinked with food security.

In times of food insecurity, brought on by conflicts, natural disasters and climate crises, humanitarian relief in the form of food assistance is often distributed by specialized organizations, such as the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Under such conditions of food assistance dispensation there are several food safety aspects to be considered in order to carefully evaluate their impact on available food, which may be limited.

This needs to be done in conjunction with minimizing the risk of exposure to foodborne contaminants among the receiving population, who may be particularly vulnerable to due pre-existing conditions such as malnutrition, or other co-morbidities.

“Food aid is consumed for only a relative short time, and is the main or even sole form of nutrition for beneficiaries. This publication is pivotal in exploring novel ways to consider how to best protect the health of beneficiaries of food aid, while strengthening regional capabilities in food production at the same time,” said Markus Lipp, FAO Senior Food Safety Officer, explaining that ensuring food safety in these circumstances requires a modified approach.

This case study presents two scenarios – heavy metal (lead) in maize and fungal toxins (fumonisins) in cereal grains – to illustrate food safety considerations that might be helpful to ensure acceptable health outcomes in food insecurity situations. Risk management and recommendations are also provided on how to address these food safety issues.

This scenario considered consumption of SC+, a WFP product, by infants and children. The main ingredient of SC+ is maize (54.8 percent) and exposure to lead was considered relevant based on recently published total diet study results from sub-Saharan Africa indicating high lead exposure.

The study suggested a further data review to support a possible revision of the current Codex maximum limit (ML) for cereals to a value less than 0.2 mg/kg as the current limit can result in an exposure to lead associated with possible adverse health effects.

It also urged Codex to consider developing lead MLs for main foods consumed by infants/young children, as it recognized that early post-natal exposure to certain contaminants can have long term negative health consequences.

At the most recent JECFA meeting, which re-evaluated fumonisins, it was reported that due to the lack of data for fumonisins in maize from countries belonging to the African (cluster A) and the South-East Asia (cluster G) WHO regions, some national exposures may have been underestimated, as well as the current international estimates for the clusters that represent these regions (G01, G03, G04 and G13)

The study therefore recommended updating exposure estimations using more recently available data to identify the need for additional exposure control methods related to diet.

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