Health-threatening issues related to food and water quality

Health-threatening issues related to food and water quality

According to experts, South African food and water quality may be at risk because of mismanagement and a lack of resources. This poses a serious threat to consumers. 

Deteriorating water management and a lack of quality control enforcement – particularly in the small and micro business sector – may be putting South Africans’ health at risk, warns experts.

A failure to enforce policy in some sectors, combined with infrastructure challenges such as power cuts and failing water and wastewater management could seriously impact food production, and ultimately consumers.

Marking World Food Safety Day in June, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said an estimated three million people die from food and waterborne disease each year, with up to 600 million cases of foodborne illness reported annually. WHO further added that illness due to unsafe food disproportionally affected vulnerable and marginalised people, especially women and children, populations affected by conflict, and migrants.

“Two of the most common food quality risks we experience in South Africa on a daily basis are food safety culture and resource availability (from human capital to technical capability to funds), and product traceability. While traceability is a legal requirement for all food manufacturers, it seems to be lacking in many of the smaller food facilities, especially within the butchery industry,” says Michem Dynamics Food Safety manager, Suenita Mackay.

The water challenge

Poor water quality, erratic power and resulting erratic water supplies directly impact food safety and manufacturers’ bottom line, the experts report. The risks posed by inadequately treated water extend across drinking water, water used for agriculture, and water used in food processing. “Drinking water has become a risk due to our government’s inability to manage our water affairs,” says Mackay.

“Mines also have a vast impact on South Africa’s water quality as many mining processes involve the use of vast amounts of water that are wasted after being used. If this wasted water is not treated effectively, it will end up polluting our dams, ground water reserves, rivers and eco systems. There are many examples in the country where mines are responsible for the decrease in water quality of its surrounding area,” says Annejan Visser of Quality Filtration Systems. “In the agriculture sector, the effects of the continual use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides on South Africa’s water quality are evident. Eutrophication (where algae starts forming on water surfaces) is a common occurrence due to the use of fertilizers that increase the phosphate levels in South Africa’s water sources.

“Non-compliance with export standards, shrinking of the food manufacturing market, and risks to consumer health are growing challenges. From a water quality standpoint, the main risk would be the infusion of pollutants from bad quality water into food produce. Manufacturers in the food industry also make extensive use of water and any polluted or affected water will increase the risk of product contamination for the manufacturer. More recently, an interrupted power supply to manufacturing facilities that halt operations has also become a challenge,” says Visser.

“The water challenge in South Africa impacts product quality and the hygiene and cleanliness of factories. Factories, for example, need to display a reduction in water usage but with no detrimental effect on cleaning,” says Simone Coetzee, also a Food Safety manager at MiChem Dynamics.

“Power instability causes product quality inconsistencies due to the stopping and starting of factories, and waste increases due to the quality rejects, which ultimately has a negative impact on cash flow,” Coetzee says.

Possible solutions

To avoid food quality issues due to unreliable infrastructure, they recommend stricter policy enforcement and that manufacturers take steps to secure their own critical infrastructure. “These risks can be mitigated through strict policy enforcement when it comes to water source contamination and the enforcement of water treatment solutions to assist stakeholders in minimising the risk posed to food manufacturers,” says Visser.

“Manufacturers could look into solutions such as water reservoirs with basic water treatment or filter (according to a capacity which will allow for business contingency for approximately 36 hours), try borehole drilling (ask the municipality for their geohydrological studies – this may assist with the drilling process to determine availability of water and at what depth,” says Coetzee.

“Awareness and wastage should be the main focus areas. Putting in a plan and really making an effort to monitor and measure water usage in all different areas and reporting on that. If you declare that you are using X amount of water, and 20% of that is for production, 35% for cleaning, 15% sanitation and facilities, and so on, then you can work on a plan to reduce and improve current water use such as grey water, water reservoirs to relieve immediate pressure from the water system and having back-up or trying to use 50% of the local municipal water and 50% borehole (mixed into a reservoir). They could also work on the reformulation of recipes to develop new product lines that require less water.”

Visser adds, “Conducting analysis on drinking water allows food manufacturers to mitigate their risk. Based on their analysis, food manufacturers should be required to implement water treatment facilities, and/or processes. Something as basic as a water filter in the incoming water pipe, which does not cost an arm or a leg, is already a good start.”

Ultimately, however, all stakeholders need to take action to check water contamination and ensure better water management. It is important that actions and steps should be put in place to act upon the data emerging around mining and agricultural water contamination and help to re-establish South Africa’s water biospheres. If this is not done, there will be an increase in polluted water and South Africans will have to start spending money to maintain healthy living standards where nature could have done it for free.” 


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