Grab a juicy mango, a crunchy apple, or a refreshing bunch of grapes, and what comes to mind?
Likely, the burst of flavor, the sweet or tart taste dancing on your taste buds. But have you ever considered the journey these fruits embarked on before reaching your plate? More importantly, the safety measures put in place to ensure they are healthy to consume? In this article we seek to unravel the intricate web of challenges faced in the cultivation and distribution of fruits and vegetables and explore the ingenious solutions that nurture both our bodies and the planet.
A journey charactized by Perishability
Fruits and vegetables, those magnificent guardians of nutrition and taste, bear a secret burden: the crown of perishability. From the instant of harvest, a relentless countdown begins, and a race against decay commences. Every passing minute, the dance of enzymes, microorganisms, and atmospheric forces orchestrates a delicate balance between life and deterioration. It is a dance both graceful and merciless, a reminder that these treasures, abundant today, may become but a fleeting memory tomorrow. This is especially true in developing countries where up to 50 percent of fruits and vegetables are lost in the supply chain between harvest and consumption.
Insufficient infrastructure, limited access to cold chain facilities, and lack of proper storage facilities lead to substantial post-harvest losses of fruits and vegetables, exacerbating food insecurity. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports that post-harvest losses in Africa can account for up to 40% of total production, emphasizing the urgency to address these challenges. The African Development Bank (AfDB) also highlights that inadequate infrastructure is a significant barrier to food safety and quality, hindering the growth of agricultural markets and value chains.
Establishing Safety Standards
Before a single orange is plucked from the tree or a tender lettuce leaf is picked from the soil, established standards lay the foundation for food safety in the fresh produce sector. Local and international regulatory bodies, such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and government agencies, collaborate to define stringent guidelines that safeguard consumers against potential hazards.
African countries also stand strong with their own food safety and quality regulations established by the National Food Control Agencies or Authorities. A good example is the Kenyan Standard KS1758 part 2 developed by agricultural private sector stakeholders, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, and the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) in July 2021. It outlines processes, inputs, and considerations that will go into ensuring that fresh produce that ends up on retail shelves in the domestic market is safe. It champions not only quality but also the welfare of workers and the environment, fostering a holistic approach to food safety.
The Codex Committee on Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (CCFFV) is responsible for elaborating worldwide standards and codes of practice for fresh produce. The CODEX STAN 190-1995: Standard for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables includes general requirements related to quality, safety, labeling, and presentation. Meanwhile, the CODEX STAN 240-2003: Code of Hygienic Practice for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables outlines best practices for the hygienic handling and processing of fresh fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of contamination. It emphasizes the importance of proper sanitation and the prevention of foodborne illnesses. There are also standards for specific fruits and vegetables.
The WTO oversees international trade rules, including the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, which governs food safety and animal and plant health measures. African countries adhere to the SPS Agreement while setting their own national regulations to meet international standards.
There are also voluntary certification programs like the GLOBALG.A.P. Integrated Farm Assurance (IFA) standard for fruit and vegetables. The IFA standard for fruit and vegetables is a global standard for responsible farming practices at the primary production level, covering preharvest activities such as soil management and plant protection product application, to basic postharvest handling.
Balancing Pest Control and Consumer Safety
The agricultural landscape is stained with the complexities of pesticide use. A delicate balance between effective pest control and consumer safety ensues, as improper application and inadequate regulation result in harmful residues on fruits and vegetables. In the midst of this dance, real-life data paints a chilling picture of pesticide contamination.
According to a study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 50% of fruits and vegetables sampled in some African countries exceeded the maximum residue levels established by international standards, indicating widespread contamination. In Kenya, a survey conducted by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) revealed that up to 90% of produce sampled at open markets had pesticide residues exceeding recommended levels. These alarming findings leave us to grapple with the imperative of better management and monitoring.
Battle Against Hidden Pathogens
The presence of harmful pathogens that could transform a mouthful of nourishment into a source of illness continues to be a pressing concern in the fresh produce sector. Pathogens can infiltrate fruits and vegetables during growth or through contaminated irrigation water, soil, or post-harvest handling. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year, over 91 million cases of foodborne illnesses are reported in Africa, with fruits and vegetables being common sources of contamination.
The microbiological pathogens associated with fresh fruits and vegetables include Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., Campylobacter, pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, norovirus, hepatitis A virus and parasites such as Cyclospora cayetanensis, Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum.
Poor Handling Practices
Inadequate post-harvest handling, like a ripple effect, amplifies the deterioration of fruits and vegetables. The story of rough transportation, improper storage, and inadequate infrastructure adds another layer to the challenges. It is not uncommon to find produce in informal markets placed on the ground and on walkways, in contact with dirt. It is also not unusual in some markets to find garbage bins or waste piles next to traders selling fruits and vegetables.
Here, statistics from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) tell the tale of losses ranging from 20% to 50%, as we face the urgency of redefining how we treat these natural wonders.
Cultivating Solutions: Effective Strategies for Produce Safety
To overcome the challenges that loom in the fields, innovative strategies ranging from digital tracking systems to modern packaging methods are essential for safeguarding the integrity of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Investment in Cold Chain Infrastructure
The struggle against perishability has spurred human ingenuity to weave a tapestry of preservation techniques. As highly perishable commodities, fruits and vegetables are extremely sensitive to high temperatures, specific heat reduction and on-site cooling practices play a key role in preserving their freshness, texture, and nutritional value while also preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. When appropriate, fresh fruits and vegetables should be maintained at appropriate temperatures after cooling to minimize microbial growth. The temperature of the cold storage should be controlled, monitored, and recorded.
Maintaining optimum temperatures of leafy vegetables in the 1-5°C range throughout the supply chain or minimizing the time they are exposed to higher temperatures will limit microbial proliferation and, depending on the type of the product, may optimize quality. Consideration should be given to the type of product, particularly certain fresh herbs (e.g. basil and shiso) that are chill-sensitive and may require higher storage temperatures to prevent quality deterioration that could leave the product vulnerable to food-borne pathogens. Minimizing the time such products are exposed to higher temperatures may be preferable.
It is not uncommon to find produce in informal markets placed on the ground and on walkways, in contact with dirt.
Good Agricultural Practices
Implementing Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) fosters responsible farming techniques that minimize food safety risks. This includes proper sanitation, water management, pest control, and worker hygiene to uphold safe growing conditions. Farmers must regularly assess the quality of water sources used for irrigation. Regular testing for microbial contaminants, chemical residues, and heavy metals is essential to identify potential risks. Employing water treatment methods, such as chlorination or filtration, can help reduce microbial loads and safeguard against potential waterborne pathogens. In addition, implementing drip irrigation systems, which deliver water directly to the root zone of plants, can minimize contact with the edible portions of the crops, reducing the risk of contamination.
Packers should use chemicals or other natural appropriate agents for post-harvest treatments in accordance with GAPs and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). Such treatments should be carried out in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions for the intended purpose. Sprayers for post-harvest treatments should be calibrated regularly to control the accuracy of the rate of application. They should be thoroughly washed when used with different chemicals and on different fruits or vegetables to avoid contaminating the produce.
Implementing Effective Traceability
Transparency is the bedrock of trust. Robust traceability systems, fueled by technology, offer a transparent journey from farm to table. By tracing each step, authorities can respond rapidly to outbreaks, enhancing public safety while bolstering consumer confidence. Blockchain technology is fast gaining popularity in the food industry for its ability to provide an immutable, transparent record of each product’s journey. Utilizing barcode or radio frequency identification (RFID) technology allows for easy tracking and tracing of fresh produce throughout the supply chain. Allowing consumers to scan a QR code or enter a product code to access information about the origin and safety of their purchased fruits and vegetables enhances trust and confidence in the supply chain. For example, Twine Agri is a Kenyan-based startup that uses blockchain technology to document and monitor every step of the agricultural value chain, ensuring safety and quality control.
IoT and Sensor-based Technologies
Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor-based technologies are another game changer for food safety. Sensors can continuously monitor temperature, humidity, and other environmental conditions, ensuring that the fresh produce maintains its quality throughout the supply chain. The IoT, on the other hand, provides real-time data, enabling stakeholders to take immediate action when any safety or quality parameters are breached.
Nanotechnology, though still in its nascent stages in Africa, holds great promise for improving food safety. Nano-sensors can be used to detect harmful pathogens and contaminants in food, while nano-packaging can help extend the shelf life of fresh produce, thus reducing waste and ensuring food safety.
Another innovation changing the face of food safety is smart packaging. This technology involves adding sensors and indicators into the packaging that can detect and signal food spoilage. A West African startup, FoodLocker, uses smart packaging technology to prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, reducing food waste and ensuring that consumers receive only the freshest produce.
Precision agriculture is another game-changer. This method employs satellite imaging and AI to monitor crop health and predict yield, allowing farmers to apply precise amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticides, making produce safer. An example of this is Farmshine, a Kenyan-based company, that leverages satellite imaging to optimize farming practices, thereby enhancing the safety and quality of produce.
Ensuring Inclusivity in Food Safety
While these innovative approaches are indeed promising, they are not a silver bullet. It’s crucial to create an enabling environment that supports their adoption and scaling up. A good place to start could be in empowering everyone involved in the supply chain, from farmers to consumers, with food safety education is vital.
Knowledge is a powerful tool in mitigating risks and promoting responsible practices. Farmers often lack resources and face unique challenges in adopting modern food safety techniques. Providing training and capacity-building initiatives for smallholder farmers can help them understand and implement food safety practices. Partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can also bridge the knowledge gap and assist smallholder farmers in adopting the best food safety practices. Moreover, offering financial support and incentives can motivate smallholder farmers to invest in food safety infrastructure and certifications.
Ultimately, consumers also play a pivotal role in demanding and supporting food safety in the fresh produce industry. Educating consumers about the importance of food safety practices and their impact on public health through educational workshops, online resources, and community initiatives empowers them to make informed choices and advocate for safer produce. Clear and informative labels can guide consumers in selecting fresh produce that meets safety standards.
This feature appeared in the October 2023 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE