Food safety put at risk by cash crunch
A funding crunch threatens to close the country's leading food and nutrition research laboratories, possibly compromising the safety of food.
The proposed closures were discussed at a "secret" meeting between the president of the Medical Research Council, Professor Salim Karim, and the directors of the 23 research units it controls.
According to Karim, the council decided to "restructure" because its budget - estimated at R400-million - had grown by only 3.5% annually for the past four years.
"We cannot sustain all 23 units. We are prioritising the top 10 causes of death and top 10 causes of death and disease.
"Conditions caused by unsafe food do not make the top 20 list of deaths. Neither does nutrition, although it is an underlying cause of some conditions in the top 10 causes of death," he said.
This means the units that may be closed include the vital Nutritional Intervention Unit (Niru), the country's leading nutritional research institute - which aims at improving nutritional imbalances among South Africans - and the Programme on Mycotoxins and Experimental Carcinogenesis (Promec).
Promec addresses health issues related to food safety and nutrition, as well as cancer caused by toxic fungi found in food.
According to a senior manager at the MRC, Promec's annual budget is about R8-million, while Niru's is an estimated R5-million.
Karim said: "We need to look where we can save the most lives and what diseases we can have the greatest impact on. When the MRC was created HIV did not exist."
Promec is involved in extensive studies of the high prevalence of liver cancer in the country.
It is running a programme to identify toxins and carcinogens contaminating maize, which has been associated with the high risk of oesophageal cancer in Transkei.
Niru's strategies have been adopted by the Health Ministry to help transform the health system.
Sheril Hendriks, president of the Agricultural Economics Association of SA, said these research units were of vital importance for food safety and security standards. Their demise would be "catastrophic".
"Research acts as an early-warning system. The loss will have an immense effect on the country's health system and productivity."
At R102-billion, exports of direct agricultural produce contribute 3% to the R3.422-trillion Gross Domestic Product, with processed goods adding 12%, or R410-billion.
Hendriks said the move to close the units went against global trends, where there was a huge focus on food safety and nutrition, especially in Africa.
"Nutrition is a problem in South Africa, with a quarter of the population under-nourished. If we lose our research capabilities, we will be facing a crisis. Not only do we do research for ourselves but also for the rest of Africa."
The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation aims to eradicate hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity by 2015, by, among other things:
Improving nutrition and food safety;
Increasing safety nets and food emergency management systems; and
Improving analysis and information management systems.
Earlier this year, Landbank CEO Phakamani Hadebe warned that a population boom across the world would undermine food security and that urgent counter-measures were needed.
"We really have to review the way we do business. Food security will demand new thinking and a new approach," he said.
A recent South African Child Gauge report found, in an audit of child deaths in participating hospitals, that 60% of the children under five who died were underweight for their age and one-third were severely malnourished.
A senior MRC researcher said South Africa faced a range of food safety and security threats, from chronic exposure to natural toxins to contamination through poor food preparation.
Due to the high standards of research, the country had had no reported deaths from food exposed to natural toxins. In Kenya, by contrast, this happened almost yearly.
Karim said the MRC's mandate was to conduct research to contribute to the country's health, based on the 10 biggest threats.
"Over time our priorities change. We have to ensure we respond to the biggest priorities. We are currently defining these to ensure we work in areas where we have the greatest impact.
"All research, including nutrition, is important, but food safety and nutrition is for now low on the list of priorities. As we [make an] impact on the top causes of death, the priorities will change," he said.
Only units researching the top 10 causes of death in the country are expected to survive the proposed restructuring of the MRC.
The proposal will be considered by the MRC board in November.
The MRC researcher said: "The new structure will be based on death statistics. The surviving research units will exist because of high death rates caused by certain diseases.
"Management's argument is that because people do not die from bad nutrition or poor food safety, research is not needed."
He said the proposed closures would have a major impact on South Africa's ability to provide safe and nutritious food, especially to poor communities.
Karim dismissed the allegations and said no decision had been taken on restructuring "as yet".
"We are consulting and exploring alternatives."
The proposals did not mean the MRC would not consider ways of prioritising its work.
Health Ministry spokesman Joe Maila said it was "not aware" of the matter.
TOP 10 CAUSES OF SA DEATH
1) HIV (31.6% of deaths)
2) Cerebral vascular disease (5.9%)
3) Hypertensive heart disease (5.8%)
4) TB (5.6%)
5) Lower respiratory tract infection (5.4%)
6) Ischaemic heart disease (4.5%)
7) Diarrhoeal diseases (4.2%)
8) Interpersonal violence (3.7%)
9) Road accident injuries (2.1%)
10) Diabetes (2.1%)