Promoting Safety By Eliminating Trans Fatty Acids In Foods

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Trans fats

The World Food Safety Day (WFSD) is celebrated on June 7 every year to draw attention and inspire actions that help prevent, detect and manage food-borne risks, thus contributing to food security, human health, economic prosperity, agriculture, access to the markets, tourism and sustainable development.

This year’s theme, ‘Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow’, highlights the need for sustainable production systems to ensure the health of people, the planet and the economy in the long-term. It is important to recognize that the health of people, animals and the environment is inter-connected, and that any safety adverse event may have a global impact on public health, trade and economy.

Recognizing the global burden of food-borne diseases, which affect individuals of all ages, in particular children under-5, adults and persons living in low-income countries, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed in 2018 that every June 7 would be World Food Safety Day.

In 2020, the World Health Assembly adopted a decision on strengthening efforts on food safety to reduce the burden of food-borne disease. WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) jointly facilitate the observance of World Food Safety Day, in collaboration with member-states and other relevant organizations.

Food safety is a shared responsibility among governments, producers and consumers. Everyone has a role to play from farm to table to ensure the food we consume is safe and healthy. Through the World Food Safety Day, WHO works to mainstream food safety in the public agenda and reduce the burden of food-borne diseases globally. Food safety is indeed everyone’s business.

For a food safety expert, Fidelia Adiagwai, food safety is a collective responsibility of the government, farmers, business operators and consumers who have crucial roles to play towards the safety of food.

She defined food as any substance that is consumed by living organisms in order to sustain life and food safety as a method of handling, preparation and storage of food to prevent food-borne disease and allergies. It includes processes that should be followed to avoid hazards or diseases. Food safety involves practices that relate to food like labeling, food hygiene, food pesticides, delivery, preparation, serving and storage of food for consumption.

On factors that contribute to making food unsafe for consumption, Adiagwai expressed the view that foods can be contaminated when they are exposed to germs such as salmonella, campylobacter, E.coli etc, while food can also become unsafe due to handling with unwashed hands such as the case of fruits, vegetables, meats etc. Also it can be as a result of contaminated water, human and animal waste, foods not stored at their correct temperature, even exposure to chemicals can all make the food to be unsafe for eating.

Looking at measures to improve food safety, the communications officer, Civil Society-Scaling Up Nutrition in Nigeria (CS-SUNN), Lilian Chineye Okafor said everyone has a role to play in improving food safety. As a matter of fact, food safety should be made a public health priority in Nigeria as unsafe food poses health threats, endangering everyone. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with underlying illnesses are particularly vulnerable and unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of diarrhoea and malnutrition, threatening the nutritional status of this category of persons, she further stated.

She urged government to foster multi-sectoral collaboration among public health, animal health, agriculture and other sectors for better communication and joint action to improve food safety. The government also needs to integrate food safety into broader food policies and programmes like the National Multi-sectoral Plan of Action for Nutrition and ensure such policies are implemented.

“Civil Society Organizations like CS-SUNN need to continue to hold government accountable to commitments made towards improving food safety in Nigeria. Consumers should know the food they consume. They should develop the habit of reading labels on food packages, making informed choices and becoming familiar with common food hazards. Food industries, sellers and distributors in Nigeria should handle and prepare food safely and uphold food safety standards during production and when selling at restaurants or at local markets,” she counselled.

Globally, legal frameworks are a key pillar in an effective food control system as food is governed by a complexity of laws and regulations which set out the government’s requirements to be met by food chain operators to ensure food safety and quality. The term food law applies to legislation which regulates the production, trade, labeling and handling of food and hence covers the regulation of food control, food safety, quality, and relevant aspects of food trade across the entire food chain, from the provision for animal feed to the consumers.

While speaking on the relationship between the theme of world food safety day which is safe food today for a healthy tomorrow and the consumption of trans fatty acids (TFA), Adiagwai highlighted that trans fatty acids also make food unsafe and has adverse effects on the health of people.

TFAs are unsaturated fatty acids that contain at least one non-conjugated double bond in the transconfiguration, resulting in a straighter shape. TFA present in our diet can either be industrially produced and ruminant or natural.

The major process contributing to formation of industrial TFA is hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Thermal processes such as edible oil refining and frying also lead to the formation of TFA while, ruminant/natural TFA is formed in the rumen of ruminant animals through bio-hydrogenation. Industrial TFA poses severe effects on our health like cardiovascular problems, insulin resistance, infertility in women, compromised foetal development and cognitive decline.

“Trans-fatty acids are manufactured fats created during a process called hydrogenation, which is aimed at stabilizing polyunsaturated oils to prevent them from becoming rancid and to keep them solid at room temperature. They may be particularly dangerous for heart health and may pose a risk for certain cancers,” she pointed out.

Reiterating the need to eliminate trans fatty acids from foods, Okafor said civil society organizations like CS-SUNN has a great role to play in informing the public about the risks associated with trans fatty acids, provide support for draft legislation/regulation to eliminate trans fats and monitor implementation of such legislations.

“The academia and research institutes need to also provide necessary evidence and facts to stimulate action for elimination of trans fatty acids; small and medium sized producers of oil, fat and food would need to be trained and re-trained on how to eliminate and replace trans fatty acids with healthier fats in the foods they produce while the government also needs to set mandatory limits or bans on the production of trans fatty foods,” she said.

In a bid to achieve food safety, we need to be mindful of what we eat as we are affected by what we eat. If the populace feed well and abstain from most unsaturated foods and processed foods, they will live healthier and longer. The implications of trans fatty foods are very alarming as most of the heart related diseases like cardiovascular diseases are all related with trans fatty acids consumption. These hydrogenated oils also form a ladder for the generation of free radicals into the human body” she said.

The consumption and production of safe food have immediate and long-term benefits for people, the planet and the economy. The availability of safe and healthy food for all can be sustained into the future by embracing digital innovations, advancing scientific solutions as well as honouring traditional knowledge that has stood the test of time.

Governments must ensure safe and nutritious food for all agriculture; food producers need to adopt good practices, also business operators must make sure food is safe as we all work together for food safety and good health, and one sure way of achieving food safety in Nigeria is by putting in place the needed TFA regulations.

Trans fat regulation, that aims to limit the amount of “trans fat” – fat containing trans fatty acids in industrial food products, has been enacted in many countries. These regulations were motivated by numerous studies that pointed to significant negative health effects of trans fatty acids.

The executive director, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), Akinbode Oluwafemi, said this year’s World Food Safety Day theme would be an opportunity for government to address the concerns on the safety of foods and the need for NAFDAC to pass the regulations on fats and oil.

He urged NAFDAC to accelerate the approval of the draft of the Fat and Oils Regulations 2019 and the Pre-Packaged, Ice and Labelling Regulations of 2019 as the draft regulations when enacted is expected to limit trans-fat to two per cent of the oil and fat content in all oils, fats, and food products.

Prudence Eboagwu-Ijah
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