Improving food safety knowledge, practices in Africa is focus of research

Amy Duke
April 02, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Consuming unsafe food is a major public health threat globally, but the continent bearing the most burden is Africa, where more than 91 million people fall ill and 140,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

“The death toll from foodborne illnesses in Africa is 12 times higher than in the United States,” said Catherine Cutter, professor of food science in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “What’s distressing is that deaths from foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli, listeria and cholera are largely preventable through use of basic food safety practices.”

Cutter explained that, unlike the U.S., developing countries often do not have the technology, infrastructure or government oversight in place to safeguard food systems, placing many at risk, especially the young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

However, perhaps the greatest concern is a lack of food safety knowledge, a problem that Cutter, as Penn State Extension assistant director for food safety and quality programs, aspires to change through a two-part international food safety research project, “A Needs Assessment of Practices and Procedures in African Food Safety Testing Laboratories.” Some of the findings of the project, which falls under the college’s International Food Safety Initiative, were published recently in Food Protection Trends.

As Cutter explained, the first part of the study entailed the design of a comprehensive food safety assessment, which was distributed initially to personnel in five food safety and microbiology laboratories in three African countries: Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique. Participants answered questions about their knowledge, attitudes and skill sets. The survey also gleaned information about the educational background and work experience of the respondents.

The second part of the assessment took place three months later, in May 2017, when Siroj Pokharel, then a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Food Science, traveled to the laboratories and conducted on-site visits. The rationale for conducting both surveys, Cutter noted, was to determine if there were any discrepancies between the answers provided during the self-assessment and those observed during the on-site visits.

One of the first skills Pokharel evaluated was participants’ hand-washing technique. A point system was used to evaluate six different steps, taking into consideration how participants wet their hands, soap application, lather time, lather vigor, and rinsing and drying.

“The simple act of properly washing one’s hands before handling food or processing food samples in the laboratory can make a big difference,” Cutter said, adding that practices such as cleaning laboratory surfaces and utensils to avoid cross-contamination and ensuring temperature control also are essential. “Food hygiene practices that have been scientifically proven aren’t always known or used in many parts of the world.”

Pokharel also evaluated the participants’ knowledge and use of sanitization practices, temperature control systems, understanding of laboratory equipment and testing, and one-way workflow to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. In addition, he looked at infrastructure in place, such as lab safety, validation of test methods, sampling protocols, maintenance and quality-assurance assessments.

The researchers found that there were often differences between participants’ self-assessment answers and their actual behavior, attitudes and skills/practices. For example, all participants agreed on the importance of sanitizing the work area during the self-assessment; however, during the on-site visit, 30 percent of those same people changed their initial response, now disagreeing on the importance of cleaning a work area.

Similarly, discrepancies were noted on personnel’s use of proper laboratory attire and personal protective equipment, laboratory infrastructure, sample handling, testing methodologies, data analyses, maintenance, troubleshooting and training.

Based on the findings, Cutter and her team developed a customized training program for those food safety laboratories in Africa that addressed these gaps. Cutter hopes that the training will serve as the catalyst for the laboratories, as well as for government and academic leaders, to be change agents in strengthening food systems in their countries.

Cutter, accompanied by Andy Hirneisen, a Penn State Extension food-safety educator, traveled to Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique in January and February to conduct three, five-day food-safety workshops. More than 40 participants took part in the trainings, which focused on topics such as foodborne pathogens, lab safety, aseptic techniques, record-keeping, training, trouble shooting and data analysis.

Andy Hirneisen, a Penn State Extension food safety educator

Andy Hirneisen, a Penn State Extension food safety educator, evaluates handwashing techniques with a participant during a food safety workshop in Uganda, Africa.

IMAGE: Penn State / Photo used with permission

“Food safety is a global issue, and we can make a big difference one step at a time," said Cutter, who has conducted similar food-safety programs in Armenia and Ukraine and has developed educational materials for food processors in Latin America. “Basic food safety information is easy to disseminate — if you give people the tools, they can teach others. Our work supports Penn State’s land-grant mission to promote a healthier population in Pennsylvania and beyond.”

Hirneisen echoed Cutter's sentiment: “Penn State has talented educators and a good foundation of science-based knowledge to make recommendations to improve practices, educate employees and the public, and provide resources to prevent foodborne illness.”

Also assisting in the research project were Robson A. M. Machado, assistant extension professor and food science specialist at the University of Maine, and Duygu Ergan-Oruc, assistant professor of fermentation sciences at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

The projects received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Foreign Agricultural Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Woskob Foundation and the college’s Office of International Programs, which leads the International Food Safety Initiative.

With partnerships in 12 countries on four continents, the initiative aims to improve the health of millions worldwide by helping to ensure a safe, accessible and nutritious food supply through research, training and outreach programs. More information is available online at

  • Food safety workshop in Africa

    Catherine Cutter, center, and Andy Hirneisen, second from right, stand with participants of a food safety workshop in Ethiopia. The pair traveled to Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique in January and February to conduct three, five-day food safety workshops.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 03, 2019