In order for food to maintain human health, it should be nutritious, pure and free from any form of adulteration. This can only be achieved through efficient food safety systems. Despite the technological improvements in agriculture, more toxic substances are entering our food chain. In April, the lives of over 60 people in Kabale were claimed by poisonous liquor while many were left blind.
Already, there is an influx of so-called food supplements on the market whose supply and consumption has remained unregulated. This gives an opportunity to deceitful business people to sell adulterated food products that affect people’s health. If deadly products can still find their way into our market, then one wonders what will happen if genetically modified foods are legalised, especially that little is publicised on their effects. Surely, the food safety-related disease burden is the least Uganda needs to be tackling right now as we struggle to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
It is rather unfortunate that Uganda’s food safety system is disorganised. The country has a multi-agency system where food safety, quality and infrastructure are fragmented. This fragmentation, coupled with limited resources, has created “limited capacity to implement an integrated and effective national food safety control system,” according to the National Food Safety Strategic Plan for 2007-2016.
In Uganda, the rate of evolution of the food safety system is very slow. The Food and Drug Act which is the main law that currently governs food safety was enacted in 1964 and in 1993, the drug element was removed to enact the National Drug Authority Act. The year 2003 saw the emergence of the Uganda Food and Nutrition policy and more recently, the draft Food Safety Bill intended to replace 1964 Food and Drugs Act which awaits approval by Parliament. However, this draft does not solve the coordination challenge as food safety remains under the control of many and its infrastructure is still fragmented.
There are a number of ministries and institutions involved in food safety issues in Uganda but there is apparent lack of coordination and clear mandates. The focus of these ministries is mainly on exports while Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), which mainly handles food safety, focuses mostly on domestic food safety issues. However, food safety issues are being continuously sidelined in favour of other more economically-viable commodities. This calls for a more organised system that is responsible for the safety of food at the national level.
The obsolete law currently guiding the food safety of Ugandans worsens the situation of the majority who are struggling to achieve food security and poses a risk of pushing them further below the poverty line. With the majority of Ugandans relying on agriculture and looking forward to new agricultural technologies, one wonders whether these new technologies are well screened to guarantee safety for human health.
There is therefore urgent need to first of all pass the draft National Food Safety Bill to guide the food safety actions in Uganda, the need for an autonomous food body that is functional and training of the food inspectors to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to handle technical food safety issues is indispensable.
Ms Barungi works with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, a public policy think tank based in Kampala.