In Zambia, street markets are a common sight where vendors sell fresh produce. The air is thick with the pungent scent of fresh produce, as vendors hurriedly set up their makeshift stalls in open markets, preparing for yet another day of lively activity.
It is clear that farming is the backbone of this country’s growing agriculture sector, and small-scale farmers are its very spine. But amidst all the hustle and bustle, there is an unsettling question lingering in the back of the mind. What about food safety measures? Did the law have anything to say about this vital issue?
FoodForAfrika.com journalist Sinenhlanhla Ngewenya chats to Charles Matongo, the standards development officer at the Zambia Bureau of Standards.
Small-scale play a critical and indispensable role in Zambia’s agriculture sector…
They contribute a large amount towards the food basket. Firstly, they offload to open markets, where consumers are exposed to their produce. Secondly, they contribute to co-operatives that allow aggregation of the product and an off-taker. Big companies come and deal with co-ops and help bring the food.
What does the law say about safety?
We have a Food Safety Act, number 7 of 2019, which was recently passed. The enactment came after six months in 2020. It is the main law. We have other legislation, such as the Animal Health Act, the Public Health Act, and the Consumer Protection Act, which also have food safety components. In terms of the mother legislation, it would be the Food Safety and Public Health Act.
Food safety in Zambia is multimodal. We have plant and animal authorities who have food safety functions in their establishments. The ministry of health has an overall food safety responsibility, and they branch out to local authorities. We have a national quality infrastructure, and there is an agency that regulates compulsory requirements, half of which are food-based and have food safety and quality requirements. This agency is under the Zambian Bureau of Standards.
How well do you think small-scale farmers understand their requirements, and do they generally abide by the law?
It’s a tough one because, from where I work, we have been having some training with SMEs. The feedback we get is that information is not readily available, and it could be an issue of challenges in spreading the information. Most farmers are in rural areas, and the government is in urban areas, and there is a significant distance between each.
They do not have the information. They get into farming to tackle social issues, but they are not aware of the law.
When we examine SMEs in urban areas, they have more information than the SMEs in rural areas. There has been a lot of work from government and non-governmental agencies to try and spread the information. We have council authorities to enforce these laws, and they operate mostly in urban areas more than remote areas.
What kind of training do you offer?
The training we offer is tailored according to the activity of SMEs. We have good hygiene practices, such as milk hygiene. We have not done much for livestock, but we have done good agricultural practices for crops. We also have training about different hazards. We have general training about labelling and packaging. We do have training that encourages compliance because, with some products, legal compliance is compulsory.
What are your hopes in improving the challenge so small scales are informed?
We looked at the sustainability of these training programmes, and one of them is trying to engage the extension officers of agriculture in our training. Some of those officers are residents of those communities and if we train with them, there is a big hope that as they do their routine work they can continue implementing the training knowledge in the field. We hope that they also share with other farmers. The most ideal one is that the government will employ more of these officers in remote areas.
What are you hoping to see for the fresh produce market?
A scenario where small-scale farmers have a basic level of information about food safety, and they can internalise it. There are some things that SMEs do so well, and they are common among them, but for me to see the food safety aspect becoming normal talk and practice, is an ideal vision for small-scale farmer vision.
We want to get away from a scenario where we please regulators. I would love to see a food safety culture among small-scale farmers. Cultural things defend themselves and if we see it deeply rooted, means improvement. That would be very great.
More importantly, I want to see any co-operative in the country with produce that is exported ready, and we don’t have to confirm and test the product because it is fit enough to reach the export market. Our milk has been rejected and the same would be true for poultry because of antibiotic residue.
Why is food safety so important and what does it mean for the consumer?
We all eat! I don’t know a person who does not eat. It is a commodity that is common to everyone, so the frequency we reach, the consumer, is very high and that is why we need to make sure that is very safe for everyone to eat.
We need to avoid food-born illnesses. We all say food is a right, but if it is not safe, then there is an infringement and you have denied somebody their basic right to eat.
The level of safety needs to be heightened so that we know that there is very little concern that we can get from the food. It borders on the fact that it is a human rights issue, and that food is consumed by everybody.