Foodborne disease education mollifies food safety risks for consumers and producers in Peru

October 09, 2020

Inequities and lack of support for small-scale farmers often translates to poor food safety outcomes.

Growing food that isn’t safe to consume is not only a waste of agricultural inputs, but a threat to the livelihood of producers and the health of consumers. The World Health Organization estimates 1 in 10 people globally fall ill every year from eating contaminated food and 420,000 die as a result.

In Peru, the economic losses from foodborne diseases annually is estimated to be $500 million (USD). Peru is one of the few countries in the Americas categorized in the World Health Organization subregion stratum “D,” with known high child and adult mortality resulting from foodborne disease. Campylobacter spp., norovirus and non-typhoidal Salmonella enterica are responsible for the majority of foodborne disease in this sub-region.

The role of Peru’s smallholder farmers in preventing foodborne diseases

Peru is a country of immense natural wealth and robust agriculture potential. The uniquely diverse climate zones of the coast, the Andean highlands and the Amazonian rainforest grant the country with the possibility to farm a wide variety of agricultural crops.

Historically, some important crop varieties such as cassava, potato, and quinoa originate from Peru. Although agriculture production only accounts for 7 percent of Peru’s gross domestic product, the agriculture sector is important as it employs 30 percent of the country’s population.

Robust agricultural growth performance has mostly been seen in large-scale farms, which are primarily found in the coastal region. Agriculture in the coastal region showed a 7.2% production growth from 2007 to 2015, while the Andean highlands saw a 0.2% production growth.

There are multiple reasons for this gap in crop yields, and an important one relates to the limitations that come with small-farm operations. The inequities and limited support for small-farm producers often translate to poor food safety outcomes.

The department of Arequipa, located in Southern Peru, has both coastal and highland agriculture and great potential for agriculture productivity. Most efforts in this region have been focused towards increasing crop yields. Less work has been done to improve food safety practices that will ensure safe fresh produce.

In late 2018, a group of researchers at Purdue University, led by Amanda Deering and Haley Oliver from the Food Science department, began a project aimed to improve food safety in the Arequipa region.

The strategy used by the group has involved observations of in-farm practices by field workers to develop a relevant course on good agricultural practices that would help reduce the risk of microbial contamination.

The food safety group has worked closely with faculty and students at the National University of Saint Augustine (Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, UNSA), such that a long-term capacity building program on food safety extension can be available to local farmers.

The Purdue group has had success in sparking interest among farmers in Arequipa. Trainings have been delivered in the districts of Cayma, Majes, and Tiabaya, to a total audience of 100 people.

Training farmers on food safety in Arequipa, Peru Photo credit: Oscar Galagarza

During the trainings, the group has been able to learn that local farmers have a greater awareness about chemical contaminants in crops than biological contamination, such as pathogenic bacteria.

Additionally, one of the group’s surveys identified that 61 percent of local farmers use fresh manure as soil amendments for their crops, which include fresh produce. This is a clear example of lack of awareness about the risk of bacterial contamination and consumer foodborne illness with the application of fresh manure to fertilize crops that are eaten raw, including produce.

As Arequipa is a mining powerhouse in Peru, it is reasonable that farmers are aware of and concerned about contamination with heavy metals, but safer practices to minimize the presence of pathogenic microbes must not be overlooked.

The Purdue group aims to foster food safety education among small-scale farmers by continuing this extension program in Arequipa with the support of UNSA.

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