Food safety in Egypt: Will the new legislation bear fruit?

Food safety is a multi-layered problem involving an array of issues, whether environmental, health or economic in nature. What seems to distinguish it, in Egypt at least, is the fact that it is yet to receive the attention required to address it effectively, bearing in mind the magnitude and seriousness of the issues at hand.

One recent development offering hope is the adoption by the cabinet of a draft law earlier this month aimed at creating a National Authority for Food Safety, which would take overall responsiblity for ensuring that a range of relevant laws are applied and policies developed across various ministries.

While the proposal shows at least a degree of political will, some remain skeptical of the chances that such a top-down approach will bear fruit, pefering instead to focus on solutions from the bottom-up, in particular the development of organic farming techniques.

A FESTERING ISSUE

Food safety entails the preparation or cultivation, handling, and storage of food in ways that prevent environmental and health hazards. While irresponsible farming methods can damage the natural environment, there is also great potential for harming human health through foods polluted with dangerous pesticides and sewage water used for cultivation. The excessive use of preservatives and other additives in food preparation can further increase the impact on the health of consumers.

According to Mohamed al-Houfy, professor and head of the Food Science Department at Ain Shams University, the impact of poor food safety in Egypt can been seen in an increase in health problems such as liver failure and cancer. As previously reported by Al-Masry Al-Youm, precise figures for cancer rates in Egypt are difficult to obtain, since authorities do not release official numbers. However, many experts, including Houfy, contend that long-term illnesses, including cancer, are spreading with frightening speed, in part due to food safety issues.

Another concern for food safety experts relates to the economic dimension of production. As Houfy explains, 80 percent of food production in Egypt involves what are referred to as “hidden factories.” These work with no permits, and, as part of the informal economy, they do not fall under the regulatory supervision meant to be undertaken by the government.

According to Houfy, the government has not been serious in its efforts to shut down these hidden factories for fear of the ensuing backlash from a multitude of businesses that represent a major slice of the economy. Meanwhile, the spread of food-borne illnesses has become an economic burden for the government. As previously reported by Al-Masry Al-Youm, it is estimated that the Egyptian government spends LE5 billion yearly just to treat diseases caused by infected food.

A CENTRALIZED AUTHORITY

Explaining why food safety continues to be a serious problem, Houfy highlights weak – almost non-existent – enforcement of regulations, whether environmental or otherwise.

In a possible attempt to address these issues, the cabinet adopted a draft law earlier this month meant to create a National Authority for Food Safety. A similar proposal was put forward in May 2009, by Ahmed Fathi Sorour, the People’s Assembly (PA) Speaker at the time. However, while the draft was referred to the PA Legislative Committee for discussion and endorsement, the matter was left un-addressed until now.

Responsibility for food safety has long been divided between several agencies with overlapping spheres of authority, including the ministries of environment, agriculture, health, and industry, to name a few.

All in all, some 20 laws are to be applied by 17 control bodies, a situation that innevitably leads to conflicts of interest and competency. The aim of creating the National Authority for Food Safety is partly to resolve such conflicts and establish a unified approach the can be agreed by all parties.

Announcing the creation of this authority, Dr. Mahmoud Eissa, Minister of Trade and Industry, said that the new body would serve to undertake the following: ensure all food safety standards currently in place are implemented; propose laws and food safety standards in accordance with international standards; put in place measures and procedures necessary to meet emergencies that threaten to put people at risk from the exposure of unhealthy food items produced locally or imported; develop a system allowing for the traceability of food; create an inventory of existing units of food production; integrate unlicensed food producers into the formal economy; and seek to prevent any fraud or deceit in food production and trading.

However, the creation of this new authority has met with much apprehension amongst development experts. As highlighted by sustainability expert Bassem Khalifa, food safety, like all environmental problems, is a cross-cutting issue, one that cannot properly be addressed by following a centralized and unaccountable form of governance.

“In the specific case of this authority, it is appointed by and accountable to the prime minister. Unless there is some popular accountability – at the very least through parliamentary approval of appointees and oversight over the authority’s budget and performance – we can expect the same interest-serving performance that we’ve seen in countless other authorities and agencies,” said Khalifa.

A GRASSROOTS SOLUTION

While the debate rumbles on about governance reform and the more stringent enforcement of existing laws, others are focussing their attention on the need to reform Egypt’s agricultural sector in general, not only to ensure food safety, but also to overcome food security concerns. Such reform would entail encouraging organic farming and phasing out harmful chemical-dependent practices.

Helmy Abouleish, CEO of the SEKEM Group – comprising Egypt’s largest organic farming community – made the case for Egypt to embrace “biodynamic agriculture” in a recent publication entitled “Farming for the future: Egyptian biodynamic agriculture.”

Biodynamic agriculture treats farms as unified and individual organisms by balancing the relations between soil, plants and animals to create a self-nourishing system strictly devoid of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The advantages of this system include improving soil quality while optimizing water use by using organic fertilizers, which hold more water than chemically fertilized land, thus helping with water conservation and eliminating all forms of exposure to hazardous chemicals. In addition, biodynamic agriculture creates job opportunities, since it supports more workers than conventional farming.

Such an agricultural system, say its proponents, would serve to address many of the food safety issues relating to the early stages of the production chain, ensuring that the basic, raw materials are healthy and free from harmful chemicals and toxic pollutants. It is even hoped that the promotion of  organic farming methods might impact attitudes further along the chain, with many consumers choosing to purchase products identified as healthier.

As Khalifa explains, this grassroots approach to food safety involves “incorporating much more localized research and development into questions of sustainable small-scale agriculture, while also improving awareness of the benefits of privileging this kind of agriculture, particularly among consumers of such products.”

Time will tell whether or not the newly formed National Authority for Food Safety will be effective in its new role as the champion of food safety in Egypt. In the mean time, the champions of healthy farming appear to be taking things into their own hands.


Originally published by Egyptindependent.com here.

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