World health day focuses on food safety

Food safety is vital for public health and well-being. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises this and used it as the theme for World Health Day 2015 celebrated on 7 April. The Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being (IFNuW) at the University of Pretoria (UP) plays an important role in addressing this problem in South Africa and Africa.

Food safety is internationally recognised as one of the most important risks to public health and food security. Safe, healthy, nutritious, affordable food is a basic human right addressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the South African Constitution.

Food safety has also been identified as one of the key national focus areas in the National Policy on Food and Nutrition Security. Food becomes unsafe due to spoilage and contamination while being produced, packed, transported, stored, processed or prepared. Unsafe food poses multiple threats to human health and well-being and can negatively affect productivity, economic growth and trade. Food-borne pathogens can cause more than 200 different diseases. One of the symptoms of these diseases is diarrhoea, which particularly affects children.

In South Africa, the incidence of diarrhoea in children below the age of five doubled from 128,7 per 1 000 in 2004 to 268,7 per 1 000 in 2005. Furthermore, the Centre for Enteric Diseases, in the 2006 South African Health Report, attributed 15% of mortality in children below age five to gastroenteritis, second only to lower respiratory tract infections. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal 4, ‘reducing by two thirds the under-five mortality rate by 2015’, emphasised that strategies to reduce the burden of disease attributable to diarrhoeal pathogens in children under five years need to become a major focus. Unsafe food constitutes a loss in the food system and contributes to food waste. In South Africa over 12 million people struggle to gain access to enough food to meet their daily requirements. Food safety is therefore a major concern.

Prof Lise Korsten of the University's IFNuW reports that South Africa has too little information on food-borne disease outbreaks. Food safety is also not a major focus area despite the global reported disease outbreaks and the known underreporting in developing countries. The WHO estimates that more than two million people die annually due to food- and water-borne diseases. Foods containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances can, therefore, negatively impact on public health and food security. New threats to food safety are also constantly emerging due to changes in food production, distribution and consumption patterns; environmental changes due to global warming; new and emerging pathogens; and antimicrobial resistance. Growing travel and trade further increase the likelihood that food contamination can spread rapidly and cause major disease outbreaks. This not only affects public health and trade but also impacts on the trust and credibility of all the players in the supply chain.

Food safety is distinct from food security but is also an important part of, and pre-requisite for, sustainable food security. The WHO World Health Day 2015 gave recognition to the important role of food safety in food production, processing and trade. Therefore, the WHO used this World Health Day to call on policy makers around the world to build and maintain adequate food safety systems and infrastructures, respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain, integrate food safety into broader national food policies and programmes, and foster communication, information sharing, and joint action between public health, animal health, agriculture and other sectors. The WHO World Health Day should contribute to an improved understanding of the challenges faced, and the necessity to provide food safety assurance for all. This will require more effective collaboration and coordination among all role players in order to prevent, detect and respond to food-borne diseases.

UP is addressing the national food safety challenges through research conducted by the IFNuW and the DST/NRF Centre for Excellence in Food Security that the University co-hosts with the University of the Western Cape. This research seeks to find practical ways to improve national food supplies through food safety systems, more effective detection of food-borne pathogens and prevention of contamination in the supply chain from production to consumption. Areas where improvements could be made include water quality in irrigation and processing, more effective food preparation, food storage, management of waste water, sanitation and personal hygiene. Food safety is a shared responsibility that can only be achieved within an effective, regulated system.

For more information contact Prof Lise Korsten on 012 420 3295 or at [email protected].


Prof Lise Korsten and story by Prof Sheryl Hendriks

April 7, 2015

  • Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

  • Professor Lise Korsten
    As Co-director of the Department of Science and Innovation-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Food Security (FS), Professor Lise Korsten coordinates and integrates food security studies at the University of Pretoria (UP). She also aligns the centre’s activities with the African Research University Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems under the directorship of Prof Lindiwe Sibanda.

    Prof Korsten has been involved in fresh produce research at UP for more than 30 years. She completed her undergraduate studies and BSc Hons degrees at Stellenbosch University before doing her MSc and PhD Agric degrees at UP. She was appointed as a lecturer and later full professor in the then Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology.

    The professor works mostly with plant pathogens that infect plants, then go on to cause disease in fresh produce as they move through the food system. This represents a cumulative cost from the farm to the market and is typically referred to as food waste. The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that up to one-third of what is being produced is lost to post-harvest diseases. This is a major global concern in food security and has been identified as a Sustainable Development Goal. Prof Korsten investigates how these field and post-harvest infections can be prevented to ensure the quality and safety of food.

    She leads the fresh produce food safety research team at the CoE FS and is looking at the rapid detection of food-borne pathogens in water and agricultural production systems. The group focuses on pathogens that enter the food system on the farm through contaminated irrigation water or later in the supply chain through washing, handling or distribution. “We assess water microbial quality, the irrigated crop, the harvested crop and how post-harvest or packhouse practices affect quality and safety,” explains Prof Korsten. “Then we follow the produce all the way through the supply chain to the export or local and informal markets, and assess final product quality and safety on the plate of the consumer. We are directly involved in developing best practices for on-farm and fit-for-purpose food safety systems for producers and processors. This research has been extensively funded by the Water Research Commission, the fresh produce industries in South Africa, and European Union and US funding initiatives.”

    Transdisciplinary research in food security is a principal interest for Prof Korsten, who has established several collaborative initiatives. She is developing an agri-microbiome programme at UP with Dr Jarishma Gokul and several colleagues in genomics and bioinformatics, and with prominent international researchers in the EU such as Prof Gabi Berg from Austria. She is expanding her research programmes to include the exploration of microbiomes in plants, agricultural water and soil and fresh produce interphase, linking it with human health and the gut microbiome. Developing this new focus area will require extensive transdisciplinary collaboration and close association with community health practitioners.

    Prof Korsten is also working with researchers in the Faculty of Humanities, such as Dr Marc Wegerif, an anthropologist and lecturer in Development Studies, focusing on food markets and informal street traders; and Dr Camilla Adele of the Department of Political Sciences to develop more effective governance systems for food safety and policy interventions. In addition, she works with Prof Marie-Heleen Coetzee of the School of Arts: Drama to develop interactive plays to illustrate the importance of community science during extreme events, such as the previous listeria outbreak in 2018 (the Listeria Hysteria play during NRF Science Week) and the current COVID-19 pandemic (Auntie Covidia and the Curious Calamities.

    Developing a food systems law focus at UP has been one of Prof Korsten’s dreams. As such, she established a food law initiative with colleagues Prof Steve Cornelius and Prof Jacolien Barnard of the Faculty of Law. It will enable scientists and lawyers to expand the space between agriculture, food and the law, supporting government and industry to improve food safety systems. “I’ve been involved in the national government’s food control authority framework, and developed a model for food control more than 10 years ago,” she explains. “I mapped the South African agricultural and food system and developed a food safety authority model for the country.” Prof Korsten says this is yet to be implemented and that South Africa urgently needs a dedicated food safety policy and food safety authority or agency.

    One Health – which is an integrated approach to human, animal and plant health within the context of environmental health – is yet another area in which she works. She and the Faculty of Veterinary Science’s Dr John Grewar are working on a sanitary and phytosanitary risk-assessment programme that focuses on antibiotic resistance in plant health. “We assess the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in natural and agricultural ecosystems, and how it is transmitted onto crops before finding its way to negatively impact human health.”

    She is also involved in a food security project on Crypstosporidium with Dr Chris Marufu. This emerging zoonotic pathogen of domestic animals and wildlife is increasingly found in drinking water catchment and water reservoir areas due to anthropogenic disturbances. This zoonotic species is becoming more important in public health and food systems, particularly in fresh produce.

    In addition, Prof Korsten and her team have been working on the UNICEF One Health for Change project in the Faculty of Health Sciences with Prof Wanda Markotter and Prof Stephanie Burton. This project – which deals with the detrimental effect of hand sanitisers on human health and the environment, and their impact on food safety systems – is an extension of a previous programme on pesticide residues on fresh produce and in the environment, as well as oestrogen activity. This was done in tandem with Prof Natalie Aneck-Hahn of the Environmental Chemical Pollution and Health Research unit.
    More recently, a new collaborative project with Prof Wynand Steyn of the Department of Civil Engineering was initiated. “We are developing smart-fruit technologies to monitor handling and transport practices that can impact on fruit quality from the farm to the market – this is a truly multidisciplinary approach to plant health and food security,” Prof Korsten says.
    “Exporting fresh produce requires extensive knowledge of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and how global standards and requirements may impact trade and often cause technical barriers to trade. So we must be able to rapidly detect pathogens and prevent product contamination or infection and establish effective surveillance systems for the country.”

    Prof Korsten credits her stepfather, a plant pathologist, with inspiring her to explore the worlds of science and agriculture. “He never failed to spot a disease, and always had his hand lens ready to search for fungal growth. He also always had an experiment going in his garden. He taught me to keep my head high even if those around me doubted me.”

    Her academic role model is Prof Pedro Crous, whom she regards as a dynamic scientist. “He is one of the best mycologists in the world and is a classical taxonomist that does not shy away from unravelling the complexities of evolutionary relationships between species.”

    Prof Korsten hopes to make a major breakthrough in her field one day, such as developing a treatment that can retain fruit quality and extend shelf-life much longer than what is currently possible. “The treatment must be safe, tasty and effective; it must provide consumers with the assurance that the product is safe and nutritious.”

    Her research matters because “we provide healthy plants that subsequently end up as the food on your plate; we ensure the quality and safety of fresh produce; we prevent plant and food-borne pathogens from entering the food system; and make sure that they do not establish and cause losses and food waste”. By focusing on post-harvest diseases and food safety, she says, we can contribute to food security for all.

    Prof Korsten advises school learners and undergraduate students to remain curious, to never fear failure and not to shy away from work or challenges. “Grow your own wings and fly as high as you can, but keep your imaginary feet on the ground and eyes on the sky. And watch the winds, because they can take you down at any time. If they do, get up and fly again.”

    Prof Korsten enjoys horse riding, photography and being in nature.

    More from this Researcher
  • Professor Sheryl Hendriks

    Professor Sheryl Hendriks completed her undergraduate studies, honours, master’s and PhD at the former University of Natal, where she also taught until joining the University of Pretoria (UP) in 2010.

    Moving to UP expanded and enhanced her research, not only because of the geographic proximity to government but because it allowed her to network with colleagues at UP, in Africa and internationally. Prof Hendriks says that the University’s reputation as well as UP management’s support of transdisciplinary research have been invaluable in advancing her research profile, impact and reach.

    Research in food security policymaking is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and advance development. Understanding the causes, outcomes and impact of policy decisions related to a range of sectors (agriculture, health, trade, welfare etc.) helps to identify potential policy choices, combinations and directions. Ultimately, these decisions determine the levels of poverty, inequality and food insecurity experienced by households.

    Prof Hendriks leads a large research group that explores the emerging field of improving food systems to ensure fairer, healthier diets and sustainability. The group includes postgraduates and colleagues from UP’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS), and connects with colleagues in networks across Africa and beyond. Under the [email protected] initiative ¬– which allows for University-driven community projects that support transformation in all its forms – this group will expand across faculties.

    This work was carried out in Prof Hendriks’s role as a member of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) Scientific Group and contributed a significant analysis to guide the group’s 2021 deliberations and plan of work. It will also expand to supporting the country implementation of actions to support the true value of food. The work was inspired by Prof Lawrence Haddad (leader of the UNFSS Action Track on ending hunger) and Prof Joachim von Braun (chair of the UNFSS Scientific Group).

    Prof Hendriks says that since 2006, her academic mentor has been Dr Ousmane Badiane, who introduced her to the dynamics of African development and has provided her with countless opportunities to work directly in applying research in practical support to African governments as they seek to achieve food security. “Through my engagement in various think-tanks and policy engagements, I find meaning in life – contributing to decisions that can improve the lives of ordinary people,” she says. “This is a dream come true for me.”

    Young people interested in following her field of research need to be passionate about helping others and acutely aware of the bigger picture in development, Prof Hendriks advises. Food security analysis can be attempted only at postgraduate level, she adds, when students have a solid grounding in a relevant field and have developed skills to cope with complex thinking.

    When not pursuing research endeavours, Prof Hendriks maintains a rose and herb garden, sews, scrapbooks and walks her dogs.

    More from this Researcher

Related Photo

Other Related Research

  • Story

    RE.SEARCH Issue 4: Transdisciplinary

    Our latest issue of RE.SEARCH is out and focuses on how the University of Pretoria (UP) is implementing transdisciplinary research to co-create new knowledge to develop solutions and design new futures for us all.

  • Story

    UP scientist joins call to protect Southern Ocean

    The Southern Ocean around Antarctica needs urgent protection – for the sake of the rest of the world. This marine wilderness is threatened by climate change and commercial fisheries, says University of Pretoria (UP) macro-ecologist Dr Luis Pertierra, an expert on the natural value of the Antarctic.

  • Infographic

    Southern Ocean fact sheet

    Did you know that 70% of the world's freshwater is held in Antarctica's ice? This is just one of the reasons why the Southern Ocean around Antarctica needs urgent protection. Learn more Southern Ocean facts with this infographic.

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2020. All rights reserved.