Democratizing food safety – for everyone, everywhere
An exclusive interview with Maame Ekua Manful, food scientist, entrepreneur, and systems thinker at the intersection of nutrition and food safety
Michelle Müller, Marketing Assistant at NEMIS Technologies:
It is a great pleasure to talk to you today, Maame! What is your background, and what has sparked your interest in food safety?
I am Maame Ekua Manful, a food scientist working at the intersection of nutrition and food safety. After my first two degrees in food science, I saw the need to specialize in food safety and quality, specifically in food quality management systems. I believe that there is no value in consuming nutritional products if they are not also safe for such consumption. Currently, I am focusing my doctoral research on food safety and regulatory affairs of upcycled ingredients.
My passion for food safety sprung out of a personal experience fifteen years ago, when after eating contaminated food, I got very sick. After being wrongly diagnosed with malaria, not knowing that I was actually suffering from typhoid fever caused by salmonella I almost lost my life. This experience had a significant impact on me - my education, family, and whole life. Unfortunately, we forget to remember that when food safety incidences happen, it is not only about the patient, but also about the cascading effects they cause. So based on my personal story, I think that everyone, whether in the developed world or the developing world, should have the right to access safe food.
Just like us, you were part of this years’ UN Game Changers Lab – what was your role, and what did you want to achieve? Where do the biggest challenges lie in our current food system?
The food system game changers lab supports the UN food system summit, whereby over 850 game changers were selected from 127 countries and were grouped into 24 cohorts. These 24 cohorts went through a 12-week solution acceleration program, where the food system game changers lab encouraged them to collaboratively develop what we call action agendas. I had the honor to guide cohort 24, where we worked on promoting food safety.
Regarding the biggest challenge in our food system, I think it is food safety. So often, we only see a reactionary approach to food safety. Consumption of food comes with food safety issues such as microbiological contamination, pesticide residues, allergens, or endocrine disruptors. While consequences of malnutrition can partially be undone, food safety incidents are very hard to reverse and most of the time, the costs and implications are extremely expensive.
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Interconnectedness on a global scale has never been so prevalent as it has become during the Covid-19 pandemic. Multinational companies use economies of scale, and even the slightest error in their operations can considerably impact people, animals, and the environment. What is your take on this, and where do you see challenges but also opportunities?
The challenge here is that it is not only about feeding as many people as possible, but it is also about producing large quantities of safe food. Suppose we only concentrate on the facts that we have more mouths to feed and use rapid food manufacturing methods, robots, and AI to produce more and more. We are prone to forget that food safety detection methods should go along with the pace of rapid manufacturing systems.
We must come up with localized, democratized methods to ensure that people everywhere can be in control of the safety of their food. This means that we need to shift from traditional methods that are often laborious, resource intensive and time-consuming to safe, rapid, low-cost, easy-to-use methods which can be used by everyone everywhere where food safety must be ensured. With rapid food manufacturing systems, we need rapid food safety screening and detection systems - and this goes hand in hand with producing more food to ensure global food security.
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“The WHO estimates that 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 people die annually as a result of eating contaminated food. Most impacted are children under five years of age from low- and middle-income countries. The World Bank estimates that the socio-economic costs of foodborne illnesses exceed US$110 billion.” What potential do you see for a safe, on-site, low-cost, and portable solution in food safety?
There is an unleveled playing field, such that the more resources you have, the more you can stick to the traditional food safety detection methods. This does not favor resource-constrained sectors, such as low-income countries within the developing world. To level a playground, we need to make sure that we give access to simple tools that can be used by everyone, whether you are rich or poor, to ensure that a product you are bringing into the market is safe. Because this is a caveat - we need to have safe food.
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Therefore, I think that it is time for us to have simple, ready-to-use, low-cost, on-site testing, or screening methods, to screen your products for food safety before taking them to the market. With this approach, I believe we will save a large bunk of the socio-economic costs of foodborne illnesses that currently exceed 110 billion USD. My goal is to live in a world where I trust that food is safe and where everyone is able to be in charge of their food safety.
Maame Ekua Manful is a food scientist and engineer working at the intersection of nutrition and food safety. After two degrees in food science, she specialized in food quality and food safety. In her career, she has worked with start-ups as well as with established companies to help them establish food quality management systems. At university, she founded Sweetpot with her colleagues, addressing the vitamin A deficiency problem in sub-Saharan Africa. She is currently engaged in her doctoral research in food safety and regulatory affairs of upcycled ingredients. Maame led cohort 24 in this years’ United Nations Food Systems Game Changers Lab, collaboratively finding solutions to promote food safety.