Towards better food quality not quantity | Daily News

Towards better food quality not quantity

Ensuring that South Asians has access to safe and nutritious food is a task of epic proportions. The region constitutes just 3.4 percent of the world’s land, but it is home to roughly one quarter of the global human population. What’s more, 40 percent of the world’s poor live in the region.

South Asia’s population density, poverty, and lack of infrastructure make guaranteeing safe food difficult for the area’s governments. Proper sanitation and waste disposal are rare, and farmers, especially those in India, often spray alarmingly high concentrations of pesticides on their crops.

The results of these circumstances are, unfortunately, high incidences of food and water-borne diseases, especially in swaths of India and Bangladesh.

To help tackle these risks in food safety and quality in South Asia, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) hosted a two-day international workshop in Colombo last month.

Though the conference focused on issues that South Asian countries face collectively, Dr. P.K. Joshi, Director for South Asia at IFPRI, shared his views on food safety measures in Sri Lanka both in a speech to the forum and in an interview with the Daily News.

Food Safety in Sri Lanka

The first step towards achieving safe food, according to Joshi, is to have enough food. Sri Lanka, unlike the rest of South Asia, has very low rates of malnourishment. That being said, the foods that people eat are generally not high in nutrients.

A rice-based diet coupled with a dietary transition towards more carbohydrate, fat and sugar-rich foods is leading citizens towards poor nutrition. People have access to enough calories, so the next step is to guarantee the safety of the foods people eat and to steer people to eat nutritious food.

With regard to food safety, Joshi said that Sri Lanka is generally doing well, but he did mention that the country is facing some challenges.

First of all, increasing urbanisation is transforming how food is transported across the island. A quarter of the country’s population now lives in the Colombo metropolitan area, and this makes it difficult to supply the area with food.

Instead of people buying locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as locally slaughtered animals and fish at area markets, they are increasingly turning to supermarkets in and around Colombo for their food. This means that farmers, as well as providers of animal protein, have to update the ways in which they transport foodstuffs.

“In order to make progress, we need to understand how food is being produced, processed, transported, packaged, and consumed,” said Joshi.

The entire production and value chain must be scrutinized, according to Joshi, since food safety depends on it. Furthermore, Sri Lanka sees a lot of food spoil before it is eaten, which is yet another reason to invest in improving transportation and packaging technology and regulations.

“A major concern for the Ministry of Primary Industries is food output waste. Currently, we are seeing wastage of 30 percent in agricultural produce from farm to consumer. The challenge thereby lies in reducing this wastage,” Primary Industries Minister, Daya Gamage, said at the workshop.

Since much food is wasted and the population is growing, there is pressure on farmers to produce more food.

Gamage noted that, due to increasing housing demand from the growing population, Sri Lankans are using vast amounts of agricultural lands for housing purposes, thereby decreasing available farmland. The challenge is to increase output from the slowly dwindling supply of land.

That is easier said than done, according to Joshi. Since so many Sri Lankan farmers cultivate small plots, they use insecticides and fertilizers to increase their crop yields. Due to the spraying, it is not uncommon for fruits and vegetables to contain chemical residues when they reach the market.

These chemicals are consumed in both food and water, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers are at least partially responsible for widespread kidney disease in Sri Lanka’s agricultural areas.

According to Joshi, Sri Lanka would be able to spend significantly less money on healthcare and curing diseases, if it were to invest in better food safety measures.

But how should Sri Lanka go about strengthening its food safety policies?

According to Joshi, there need to be controls on insecticides and fertilizers as well as fresh investment in transport and packaging for perishable foodstuffs, which ensure that less food spoils in between its origin and the consumer’s kitchen.

Gamage put forth similar policy recommendations: “By investing in and improving our current harvesting practices, transport arrangement, storage facilities and packaging techniques, we can reduce wastage by 90 percent,” he said.

Furthermore, both Joshi and Gamage argued that building the awareness and capacity of both farmers and public health officials is crucial to improving food safety and promoting good agricultural practices.

“We have to create awareness of all stakeholders involved in these processes. Only by increasing their knowledge base can we improve on a national scale,” said Gamage.

Joshi echoed him, saying that farmers are not necessarily aware of food safety measures and must be educated in the best agricultural practices.

This education, however, is the backbone of Sri Lanka’s strategy for ensuring safe food.

Sri Lanka’s Food Safety Measures

Sri Lanka’s food safety measures focus on both prevention and detection of spoiled and dangerous foodstuffs. Individual ministries and departments, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, work on the prevention side and educate farmers on the best agricultural practices to prevent food safety troubles.

“We work with farmers to teach them how to maximize their output with the fewest possible pesticides and fertilizers, while also teaching them how to minimise the risk of contaminating their crops with chemicals,” said Dr. Anura Wijesekara, Director of Research at the Department of Agriculture.

The Ministry of Fisheries conducts similar work with fisher people, and the Department of Animal Production and Health educates those raising and slaughtering animals.

While individual ministries and departments work solely on the prevention side, the Food Control Administration Unit (FCAU), which falls under the Ministry of Health, works on both the prevention and detection of unsafe foods.

With regard to prevention, representatives from the Ministry of Health and the FCAU are responsible for giving licenses to factories that process food.

“If someone starts a processed food factory, they have to apply to the local authority for a license. The local authority will refer the application to our team, and we go to the factory and check whether it meets the necessary food hygiene and manufacturing regulations,” said FCAU Assistant Director, SalithambyAbouthali.

The same procedures are in place for slaughterhouses, as the officials from the Ministry of Health check that these facilities meet the national standards. After giving the proper certifications, the officials perform checks on the factories and slaughterhouses every few months to make sure that they are operating properly.

“We perform cross checks to see if their standards continue to comply with our standards,” he said.

But the FCAU is primarily involved in detection of rotten and unsafe food at the markets. There are over 1,800 public health inspectors island-wide who are responsible for testing foods at markets.

The health inspectors can check any food product at markets and can send foods to labs to be tested for pesticide residue, heavy metals, and bacteria contamination, among others.

“The public health inspectors can enter any market at any reasonable time and check the foods to see if they are safe,” said Abouthali.

If it is determined that foods are unsafe or unhygienic, the food suppliers or markets can face legal action.

Much of the onus to produce safe food, however, falls on the manufacturers, slaughterhouse owners, and farmers themselves, required to provide proper food packaging and transportation. They are finally responsible for producing high quality products.

Though the aforementioned systems function well enough to maintain the safety of Sri Lanka’s food, Abouthali noted that the FCAU and the Ministry of Health are working to improve their services and training.

Of particular interest is a proposal to appoint new inspectors who would concentrate solely on food safety. Currently public health inspectors are responsible for monitoring both food and public health issues, such as diseases. Their many responsibilities leave public health inspectors spread thin when natural disasters or disease outbreaks occur.

The proposal would also appoint a food inspector for every MOH area, thereby increasing the amount of food that would be checked.

But officials from various ministries and the CFAU noted that it is crucial to make consumers aware of food safety.

“All stakeholders must get involved in the process to guarantee that safe food is available, and that includes both producers and consumers,” said Joshi. 


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