Government authorities in Zambia are devoting more attention to food safety issues, but public knowledge is poor, and food poisoning outbreaks can be deadly. Food poisoning and contamination can be caused by a variety of factors, including poor production and handling practices and the improper use of veterinary medications, among others. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) have collaborated with national authorities for many years to assist and support the country’s efforts to improve food safety in staple crops and animal products.

Recently, these efforts have focused on meat and other animal products. Approximately half of the urban consumer’s food expenditure is on livestock food products and grains, whereas the rural population is thought to rely more heavily on grains. As Zambia develops and its citizens’ incomes increase, the national diet is likely to change. It is expected that more meat will be consumed in the future, and therefore the meat processing industry will also grow. Experts are working to tackle livestock and human health problems related to meat and other foods derived from animals.

The IAEA and FAO are working with Zambian experts to address drug-resistant microbes as well as food contamination in meat and other animal products. Part of this involves strengthening the capabilities of the country’s Central Veterinary Research Institute (CVRI). Providing new equipment to analyse hazardous chemicals in food and transferring novel analytical technology, the IAEA is supporting the CVRI in delivering better services and has increased the technical knowledge of laboratory analysts through guidance and training. The ultimate aim is to ensure food is up to quality standards and rates of food poisoning are lowered.

“Food safety is a priority for Zambia, and we are glad for the IAEA’s support in building our laboratory capabilities and encouraging collaboration among our institutions,” said Gerald Monga, Principal Veterinary Research Officer at the CVRI.

Alleviating poverty and enhancing food safety

The presence of animal and zoonotic diseases such as colibacillosis and coccidiosis burdens animal production and requires veterinary drugs for treatment and control. However, remnants of drug residues that remain in animal products increase health risks, lead to drug resistance, and impede exports.

To help prevent these risks, the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture has trained scientists and supported analytical testing for a Zambian residue monitoring programme – to make sure meat and other products are only sold once they no longer contain residues. These efforts, supported by the IAEA technical cooperation programme, are helping to prevent potentially harmful chemicals from entering the food supply and guide the country’s use of antimicrobials in animal production.

“I learned new rapid and confirmatory techniques for testing residues and contaminants in food. This knowledge that I also shared with colleagues has enabled us to increase the capability to ensure that animal products are safer and that relevant production s are adhered to,” said Monga.

Monga and his colleagues have been trained on the use of drugs or toxins labelled with carbon and hydrogen isotopes. Isotopic techniques are helping laboratories in Zambia to analyse meat and related products such as the animal feed to ensure food safety and improve both agricultural standards and food trade.

Thanks to these efforts, the CVRI is now able to regularly test for residues.

“The meat processors are happy with the new laboratory testing as they can use the results from the residue testing to prove compliance with required standards,” said Monga. This has allowed for exports to Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe, among others, which was previously not possible or constrained due to lack of residue testing. IAEA support has also enabled CVRI to attain and maintain accreditation to ISO 17025 — a measure of competence and reliability by end-users of the analytical services.

Substances or contaminants marked with radioactive isotopes such as carbon-14 and tritium (hydrogen-3) along with binding agents, such as bacteria, are added to food samples. The isotopes act as a tracer to identify contaminants. If the sample is contaminated, residues from the contaminant in the food sample compete with the marked contaminant. If the sample contains no drug residues or other contaminants, the agent binds exclusively with the tracer-marked additive. This difference can be measured as well as the amount of contaminant or residue if any.