A new health study has found that small-scale food businesses in the informal sector are at the highest risk of food contamination in developing countries.
The report, commissioned by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the CGIAR Initiative on One Health, found that small-scale food processors, grocers, market vendors and food service providers have the highest levels of unsafe food compared to the formal sector.
The report, "Directions for Tackling Food Safety Risks in the Informal Sector of Developing Countries," attributes the high levels of food contamination to inadequate food safety awareness, poor hygiene practices, inadequate food storage and preparation methods, and poor infrastructure and environmental conditions.
Despite the fact that informal markets dominate low- and middle-income economies, the report shows that very few countries have put in place coherent strategies to address food safety risks in this sector, exposing the public to health risks.
Most existing policies and resources for domestic food safety in developing countries are said to focus on strengthening centralised food control systems.
"While investments have been made in testing laboratories, food business inspection units and the capacity of national agencies, these efforts have focused primarily on medium and large food businesses in the formal sector. Insufficient attention has been paid to informal food operators and businesses, resulting in a missed opportunity to improve food safety in this important sector," the report says.
Steven Jaffee, a co-author of the report and a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, notes that previous studies have shown widespread problems of food contamination within informal food distribution networks.
However, the report calls for a paradigm shift in policies, with innovative strategies to address food safety risks in the informal sector.
"It is clear that more of the same will not lead to safer food in the informal sector. Nothing less than a paradigm shift is needed to effectively address food safety risks in the future," says Spencer Henson, Professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, Canada, and co-author of the report.
The report's recommendations include mainstreaming food safety into urban planning and municipal services, strengthening the incentives and capacity of informal market operators to provide safer food, and taking a pragmatic approach to interventions for different types of informal food operators and within countries.
By adopting innovative and inclusive strategies to address food safety risks in the informal sector, the report shows that developing countries can improve public health, promote sustainable urban development and improve the livelihoods of millions of informal food operators.
Hung Nguyen, co-leader of ILRI's Animal and Human Health Programme, said the institute has been working with national and local authorities to create an enabling environment, provide training and appropriate technologies to value chain actors, and ensure that incentives are in place for better practices by food producers, handlers and consumers.