AFRICA – Food safety analytical scientists from across Africa have pointed to significant gaps in physical and human capacity throughout the continent to ensure that the food its population eats is healthy and nutritious, in a new survey released at the AOAC International Sub-Saharan Africa Section’s annual meeting in Johannesburg.

The Sub-Saharan Africa Section of the AOAC serves as an effective vehicle to drive the improvement of analytical competence and capabilities as well as improving the standards and performance of food testing labs in Africa – be it private, research, academic or Government. This platform can also foster more public-private engagements, bringing tremendous benefits for the consumers and economies in this region. The meeting marked it’s third annual meeting since incorporation as a Hybrid Event, comprising of both an in-person and a virtual congress.

Among the survey’s key findings were a continuing lack of International Organization for Standardization, ISO certified food safety testing laboratories (63 percent on the continent certified to ISO 17025: 2017 compared to 100 percent in Europe), gaps in training programmes (40 percent of respondents reported that their establishment had no active training programme), and more than a fifth reporting that their labs do not use official analytical methods.

“These results would be troubling enough from both a public health and a trade enablement viewpoint at the best of times. But this comes just a few months after Africa has launched its Continental Free Trade Area, with the ambition to increase intra continental exports by over 80 percent by 2035.” said Dr Owen Fraser, President, AOAC International Sub-Saharan Africa.

He noted that agricultural raw materials and finished food products are predicted to be key to the intercontinental trade. However, he added that if the means to test safety, quality and regulatory conformity are lacking, these ambitions could be severely impeded.

“And that doesn’t even consider the continent’s ability to positively impact its US$43bn food trade deficit by exporting beyond the continent to markets such as Europe, whose standards are becoming ever more exacting. If this is to change for the better, significant and urgent investment is needed in physical laboratory infrastructure as well as human capacity,” said the President.

Lab infrastructure deteriorates

The survey which was undertaken by the section’s 370 members, was built on an equivalent exercise carried out in 2018. Compared to the previous survey, the percentage of accredited laboratories rose by 23 percent and 65 percent of food testing labs regularly participated in an ISO17043 accredited proficiency test schemes as opposed to 60 percent in 2018. In addition, 76 percent achieved satisfactory performance compared to less than 50 percent in 2018.

However, in other areas the situation had deteriorated significantly. Of particular concern to the AOAC members was the decline observed in laboratory infrastructure, with 40 percent of respondents considering their laboratory infrastructure good or excellent compared to 50 percent in 2018.

“And that conceals even more worrying trends. 67 percent of laboratories surveyed have no digitized Laboratory Information Management system. This means that the process for tracking samples through the laboratory is not formalized, and whilst this may not be a barrier to gaining accreditation, it may well be a barrier to maintaining that accreditation over time,” continued Dr. Fraser.

He called for more concerted action and investment on the part of the member states, the continental and regional authorities and the development partner community.    

“If there isn’t, conformity assessment capacity in Africa will remain at a fraction of what the continent needs to ensure safe, healthy diets for its fast-growing population, but also to realize simultaneously its food and nutrition security ambitions; and its trade potential both intra-continentally and beyond Africa,” he explained.     

The AOAC International Sub-Saharan Africa’s President informed that despite his members doing all they can, this survey shows beyond doubt that it is time for this topic to be taken seriously and the required resources made available as a priority.

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