Food safety analytical scientists from across Africa have pointed to significant gaps in physical and human capacity throughout the continent, in a new survey released at the AOAC International Sub-Saharan Africa Section's annual meeting in Johannesburg in November.
Among the survey's key findings was a continuing lack of ISO certified food safety testing laboratories (63% on the continent certified to ISO 17025: 2017 compared to 100% in Europe); gaps in training programmes (40% of respondents reported that their establishment had no active training programme); and more than a fifth reporting that their labs do not use official analytical methods.
"These results would be troubling enough from both a public health and a trade enablement viewpoint at the best of times," said AOAC International Sub-Saharan Africa President Dr Owen Fraser. "But this comes just a few months after Africa has launched its Continental Free Trade Area, with the ambition to increase intra continental exports by over 80% by 2035. Agricultural raw materials and finished food products are predicted to be key to this - but if the means to test safety, quality and regulatory conformity are lacking, these ambitions could be severely impeded. And that doesn't even consider the continent's ability to positively impact its USD 43bn food trade deficit by exporting beyond the continent to markets such as Europe, whose standards are becoming ever more exacting. If this is to change for the better, significant and urgent investment is needed in physical laboratory infrastructure as well as human capacity."
Polling the Section's 370 members, the survey built on an equivalent exercise carried out in 2018. Some improvements versus the earlier survey were observed: the percentage of accredited laboratories rose by 23% and 65% of food testing labs regularly participated in an ISO 17043 accredited proficiency test schemes compared to 60% in 2018, with 76% achieving satisfactory performance compared to lower than 50% in 2018.
However, in other areas, the situation had deteriorated significantly. Of particular concern was the decline observed in laboratory infrastructure, with 40% of respondents considering their laboratory infrastructure good or excellent compared to 50% in 2018. "And that conceals even more worrying trends, “ continued Owen Fraser. "67% of laboratories surveyed have no digitised Laboratory Information Management system. This means that the process for tracking samples through the laboratory is not formalized, and whilst this may not be a barrier to gaining accreditation, it may well be a barrier to maintaining that accreditation over time.” Laboratory equipment usage rates had also deteriorated, with respondents reporting 62% of unused analytical machines in their facilities compared to 50% in 2018. In addition, there was an indication that prospects for young scientists are not improving, with 45% of laboratories surveyed without any laboratory staff below the age of 26 years old. Neither has gender balance been achieved, with 39% of laboratory staff surveyed being female.
"AOAC International and its partners are doing their part through initiatives such as the Laboratory Mentoring Programme", Owen Fraser noted. "Just last month we carried out an exercise in Ghana with a special focus on aflatoxin testing, impacting 25 young scientists. And one of the survey's more heartening metrics was the improvement in P-Test performance, which indicates that AOAC capacity building programmes are working where they can be implemented. But we need much more concerted action and investment on the part of the member states, the continental and regional authorities and the development partner community. If there isn't, conformity assessment capacity in Africa will remain at a fraction of what the continent needs to ensure sale, healthy diets for its fast-growing population; but also, to realise simultaneously its food and nutrition security ambitions; and its trade potential both intra-continentally and beyond Africa. AOAC International Sub-Saharan Africa's members are already doing all they can, but today's survey shows beyond doubt that it is time for this topic to be taken seriously and the required resources made available as a priority".
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About The AOAC
The AOAC Sub-Saharan Africa Section is a not-for-profit organisation based purely on the active volunteer work of scientists and like-minded stakeholders.
They represent 46 African countries positioned south of the Sahara desert, creating an Africa-based platform where official control laboratories, regulatory authorities, industry, contract research organisations, technology providers and academia can work together to improve the standard and performance of analytical science within the region.
Their platform provides a forum through which the collective knowledge, experience and capabilities of all participants will be the principal resource as well as the key driver for the improvement in laboratory standards and analytical sciences.