GLOBAL – A report commissioned by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the CGIAR Initiative on One Health emphasizes the urgent need for innovative approaches to tackling food safety risks in the informal sector of developing countries. 

The report highlights the significant role played by small-scale processors, grocers, market vendors, and food service operators in more than 20 low- and lower-middle-income countries’ food systems. 

It underscores the importance of transitioning towards safer food practices within the informal sector.

The report reveals that despite ongoing structural changes, small-scale food businesses continue to dominate the food systems of developing nations. 

These informal actors play a vital role in domestic markets, particularly for high-nutrient foods such as fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables. However, food contamination remains a widespread issue within informal food distribution networks. 

Factors contributing to this problem include inadequate food safety awareness, poor hygiene practices, substandard food storage and preparation methods, and deficient infrastructure and environmental conditions.

Addressing food safety risks

The report highlights the lack of strategies in place to address food safety risks in the informal sector and the low levels of food safety among workers in this sector. 

It points out that current approaches often focus on displacing small-scale operators in favor of a modernized food system. However, the report argues that a paradigm shift is necessary to effectively tackle food safety risks in the informal sector.

The report outlines several key approaches to address food safety risks in the informal sector including local action, that is centrally guided.

It notes that Interventions should primarily be implemented at the municipal level, with national agencies providing resources, guidelines, and technical support. 

Multistakeholder platforms involving consumers, communities, business associations, and government bodies should be strengthened to drive the agenda for safer food in the informal sector.

Enhancing food safety should be integrated with interventions focused on nutrition improvement, clean water access, sanitation, environmental management, and urban infrastructure upgrades, reads the report. It is essential to incorporate food safety into urban planning and municipal service delivery.

Moreover, it calls for a rebalancing of the use of sticks and carrots, i.e., rather than strictly enforcing regulatory provisions, a gradual and continuous improvement approach should be pursued. 

Informal market operators should be engaged and empowered to provide safer food by strengthening their incentives and capacities. Employing food hygiene and business advisors to support operators, in addition to regulatory inspections, can be beneficial.

In addition, the report advocates for a tailored approach, considering the diverse risk profiles and intervention potentials across different types of informal food operators and within countries. 

The decentralized and multisectoral approach should be pragmatically adapted to specific circumstances, emphasizing effective coalitions for action and the sequencing or integration of interventions.

Strengthening food safety in the informal sector can contribute to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 2: Zero Hunger and Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being.

Collaboration among research institutions, government agencies, NGOs, and local communities is crucial for the successful implementation of innovative strategies to enhance food safety in the informal sector.

The report highlights existing initiatives that demonstrate the successful application of decentralized and multisectoral approaches. However, the challenge now lies in convincing funders and implementers to scale up these affordable and effective approaches.

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