A University of Pretoria researcher is calling for the creation of sustainable regulation systems to improve food safety in the informal sector, including food sales in informal settlements. “We need to develop a local system that can regulate the food being sold in our informal sector, to ensure that it’s still safe for all,” said Professor Lise Korsten, Co-Director of the Department of Science and Technology’s National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security.
Prof Korsten was speaking at the recent International Conference on Food Safety and Food Security hosted at UP, the theme of which was ‘Next Generation Food Safety Technologies’. The conference aimed to address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal of achieving zero hunger through food safety and food security.
Prof Korsten told delegates that communities living in informal settlements in South Africa face the threat of contracting a range of food-borne and waterborne illnesses as a result of an unregulated food supply.
This is a ticking time bomb, she warned, as those who live in these areas represent a large proportion of immunocompromised people. The situation is made worse by poor sanitation conditions such as inadequate waste and sewage removal and lack of clean drinking water.
Prof Korsten and her team are conducting research on food safety in Atteridgeville, Mamelodi, Soshanguve, Plastic View and Zama-Zama, informal settlements which she says are often controlled by different factions or groups – who also control the food supply. “They move large volumes of food into these areas and totally control the supply chain. The food is distributed and sold in spaza shops or on the street.”
Several products such as rice, powder milk, tea, coffee, sugar, maize, spices or fresh produce as well as cold meats like polony are on sale. But it’s unclear where the food is coming from and who exactly is controlling the supply chain.
“Keeping in mind the huge challenge we have with certain food hazards – such as high levels of mycotoxin or pesticide residues in our food system, or the presence of food-borne pathogens – it’s pertinent to regulate and control it. Given the challenge with effective regulation of these hazards in the formal food system, one can just imagine the unique situation we have with unregulated food.”
Mycotoxins are naturally occurring toxins produced by certain fungi that can pose a health threat to humans and animals, and is prevalent in peanut butter, for instance. “This means that peanut butter that isn’t effectively regulated, or produced by unregistered producers and processing plants may pose a health risk to the consumer,” Prof Korsten explained. “This happens if large volumes over an extended period of time are consumed, particularly by the very young, old or immunocompromised. This could contribute to illnesses such as different types of cancer.”
Consumers should be made aware of counterfeit goods and food that is past its sell-by date, she added. “People should ask where the food was made and under what conditions. We should question the manufacturing conditions and how was the food stored and packed – all these factors can have an impact on the quality and safety of our food.”
Because lower-income groups typically can’t afford to buy large quantities of food, there is a market in informal settlements for smaller volumes. “One can purchase milk powder in a small unlabelled plastic bag or coffee powder for less than 80 cents,” Prof Korsten said. “But what is in the milk powder, who manufactured it, what is the expiry date? This is all critical information that must be provided according to our national labelling regulations yet it is not available. This means the food system has been compromised for the very poor and that is not acceptable.”
More so, not only is the exposure to contaminated food that much higher because of lack of access to clean water or fridges, the unsuitable environmental conditions under which products are being stored, prepared or sold all favour microbial growth. Fresh produce, for instance, is usually sprinkled with water of unknown quality, which increases the risk of waterborne pathogens.
The biggest concern for Prof Korsten is that people in informal settlements could purchase raw chicken that may be contaminated with listeria monocytogenes or other pathogens that can cross-contaminate. “If people buy raw or defrosted chicken and there’s blood in the packet that leaks onto contact surfaces or other fresh or prepared food that isn’t refrigerated, the chances of contracting listeriosis are high.”
South Africa was hit by a listeriosis outbreak earlier this year, with more than 200 people succumbing to the food-borne disease. Processed meat, including polony and viennas, were the main culprits. Prof Korsten indicated that in some cases, polony being sold in informal settlements has still been found positive for listeria monocytogenes, meaning that not all contaminated food has been removed from the national food system. “Sliced polony is being sold at spaza shops with no labelling so we don’t know where it’s coming from.” She said that people in lower-income brackets are more compromised as they can’t access healthcare services easily.