The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines food security as when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life.
In most developing countries the focus is on food security, while the concept of food safety - although just as important - is not given as much attention. Food safety as a concept is a reinforcement of food security and explains the conditions and practises that preserve the quality and safety of food to prevent contamination and food-borne illnesses.
Unsafe food makes people sick, as it might contain hazardous agents or contaminants that cause sickness immediately or lead to chronic disease, and even death in a worst case scenario.
In most developing countries - and Namibia is no exception - governments' focus is on food security. With food security being the first goal of the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) and in wanting to reach this goal, nations are striving to be self-sufficient when it comes to food production, so ensuring that they eradicate hunger and at the same time reduce poverty through job creation through food production by farmers.
The agricultural sector in Namibia contributed around 7.7 percent to the country's Gross Domestic Product last year, thanks to the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry (MAWF's) various programmes that aid farmers.
Due to the focus on food security, it seems we are neglecting the food safety aspect in food consumption. With a change in habits, like individuals becoming health conscious, it is important that one needs to know exactly what we are eating and how safe it is. It is the food business operator's (FBO) responsibility to ensure that the food they sell to their consumers is safe. This means all FBOs need to implement basic hygiene programmes.
Implementing food safety standards in a business reduces the risk of contaminating food products, hence providing safe and healthy food to customers. At the moment in Namibia only exporting FBOs, such as abattoirs, dairies, poultry producers and fishing companies are currently enforcing food safety and quality standards, such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), British Retail Consortium (BRC), ISO 9001 and ISO 22000, because the countries of export have strict food safety laws and regulations in place that need to be implemented by all exporting countries.
Those food safety and quality standards, however, are not enforced for food products meant for local consumption, because the country does not have strict food safety laws and regulations to protect Namibians from food products that could potentially harm them.
A Food Safety Policy was launched last year by the Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry. The food safety policy states that in Namibia, food production is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, which is responsible for enforcing food safety regulations at production and primary handling level, including silos, pack-houses and slaughter houses.
Other stakeholders of this policy include the Ministry of Health and Social Services - the custodian of food safety issues. The ministry acts as the point of information for foreign governments involved in food trade with Namibia on matters relating to compliance to food safety standards, in line with Codex Alimentarius Commission requirements.
The food safety policy clearly indicates which ministry is responsible for what. The Namibia Standards Institute (NSI) under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) is responsible for implementing the Standards Act, which controls standards, such as additives, processing aids, and all products traded in Namibia.
Food safety issues in fish and fishery products in water up to catch and landing is controlled by Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, while standards of fish offered for trade - whether processed or not - is the responsibility of Ministry of Trade and Industry. Food safety standards of plant and animal products exported from Namibia are the responsibility of the MAWF, while regional and local authorities are responsible for FBOs in their respective jurisdiction.
The nation is still waiting for the four mentioned ministries to come up with the Food Safety Bill. When this is tabled and passed in parliament and becomes a law, then the Food Safety Act will eventually give the regulatory authorities more power. The current regulatory authorities only concentrate on controlling the exporting FBOs, but not the local operators and one would ask themselves why this is the case?
Are we as citizens of Namibia not worthy of safe food?
This needs to change, local FBOs need to be controlled as well, to make sure that the food products they are selling to people locally are safe for human consumptions and are free of pathogens and contaminants.
We eat food products sold in supermarkets, restaurants and at our own famous kapana stands. But how sure are you that the food you are consuming is safe?
Recorded cases of food poisoning in Namibia are rare, although they do happen, but due to a lack of strict laws, if you do get sick from unsafe food there is not much you can do apart from going to the hospital to get treated. Food products that are contaminated present a real problem, because it may result in illness and death, mostly of the vulnerable groups, such as infants and elderly people.
After passing the Food Safety Bill, the regulatory authorities need to take full control and employ more auditors and hygiene inspectors in food safety and QMS, who will carry out audits and inspections at FBOs for both local and international markets.
This will provide better control regarding food safety issues from 'farm to fork', not only for foreign markets but for every Namibian as well.
Hosea Shaanika holds a BSc. in Agriculture, Food Science and Technology from UNAM and a postgraduate Certificate in Total Quality Management from UNISA.