New Report Calls for a Strategic Shift in Tackling Food Safety Risks in the Informal Sector of Developing Countries

June 7, 2023

A new report co-authored by a University of Maryland economist concludes that current strategies for reducing food safety risks in developing countries are inadequate, and highlights the urgent need for innovative strategies that address the informal sector. 

The report, commissioned by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the CGIAR Initiative on One Health sheds light on the dominant role of small-scale processors, grocers, market vendors, and food service operators in informal markets in most low- and lower middle-income countries' food systems. The authors emphasize that a wholesale shift is needed to operationalize safer food in the informal sector. 

“Previous studies have shown widespread issues of food contamination within informal food distribution networks,” said Steven Jaffee, one of the co-authors of the report and a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland. Multiple factors contribute to this problem, including low food safety awareness, poor hygiene and food handling practices, and deficient infrastructure and environmental conditions. “Both the incentives and capacities to deliver safer food are inadequate in many informal food distribution settings.”

Despite ongoing structural changes, the prevalence of small-scale food businesses remains prominent in the food systems of most developing countries. These informal players play a crucial role in the domestic markets for high-nutrient foods such as fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables. And this is unlikely to change, anytime soon.

Very few countries have coherent strategies in place to address food safety risks in the informal sector. The report notes that most existing policies and resources aimed at domestic food safety in developing countries concentrate on strengthening centralized systems for "food control," with investments made in testing laboratories, food company inspection units, and national agency capacities. Outreach and oversight tend to focus on medium and larger food enterprises within the formal sector. Centralized agencies often have little or no contact with the large number of informal food operators. And, when government authorities do interact with small-scale operators, they often disrupt business in their attempts to achieve a more ‘orderly’ or ‘modern’ food system. Disrupting local markets and issuing fines against small business operators rarely results in safer food.

“It is clear that doing more of the same will not yield safer food in the informal sector,” said Spencer Henson, a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, Canada, and a co-author of the report. “Nothing less than a paradigm shift is required to effectively address food safety risks moving forward.”

The report recommends the following key approaches:

  1. Local action, centrally guided: Interventions, both regulatory and facilitative, should primarily be implemented at the municipal level. National agencies can play a pivotal role in mobilizing resources, providing guidelines, and offering technical support. Multi-stakeholder platforms, involving consumers, communities, business associations, and government bodies, should be strengthened and utilized to drive the agenda for safer food in the informal sector.
  2. Multisectoral action: Enhancing the safety of food in the informal sector should be integrated with interventions focused on nutrition improvement, access to clean water and sanitation, environmental management, and urban infrastructure upgrades. Mainstreaming food safety into urban planning and municipal service delivery is essential.
  3. Rebalancing the use of sticks and carrots: Rather than strictly enforcing regulatory provisions, a gradual and continuous improvement approach should be pursued. Informal market operators should be engaged and enabled to strengthen their incentives and capacities to provide safer food. Cities and local ministries should consider employing food hygiene and business advisors to support operators instead of relying solely on regulatory inspections.
  4. Differentiating local strategies and priorities: A tailored approach is necessary since a "one size fits all" solution is impractical. The risk profile and potential for interventions vary among different types of informal food operators and within countries. The decentralized and multisectoral approach should be pragmatically adapted to specific circumstances, with a focus on effective coalitions for action and the sequencing or integration of interventions.

The report highlights several examples of past or current initiatives applying elements of this approach. For example, the Eat Right India program, involves interventions at state and municipal levels, guided by a central government agency. That program starts with a recognition of the multifunctional roles played by informal food distribution channels, and works to engage and enable informal food business operators through various means. Many of the interventions aim to simultaneously improve food safety, environmental conditions, and nutritional outcomes.

“By adopting innovative and inclusive strategies to tackle food safety risks in the informal sector, developing countries can enhance public health, promote sustainable urban development, and uplift the livelihoods of millions of informal food operators,” said Hung Nguyen, co-leader of the Animal and Human Health Program at ILRI. “The challenge now is to further operationalize these strategies, learn more about what works and what doesn’t—in diverse settings-- and mobilize the needed resources to achieve major and sustainable results, at scale.”


The report, "New Directions for Tackling Food Safety Risks in the Informal Sector of Developing Countries," is available here.

In addition to Steven Jaffee and Spencer Henson, University of Maryland graduate student in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics Shuo Wang is a co-author of the report.


The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources embodies the university's land-grant mission with a commitment to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, preserve our natural resources, improve quality of life, and empower the next generation through world-class education.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a One CGIAR Center, is a non-profit institution working for better lives through livestock. Working in extensive partnerships, ILRI helps people in developing countries keep their farm animals alive and productive, increase their livestock and farm productivity in sustainable ways, find profitable markets for their animal products, and reduce the risk of livestock-related human diseases. Employing more than 600 staff and operating an annual budget of about USD100 million, ILRI is a member of CGIAR, a global research-for-development partnership conducting research in 13 centres/alliances for a food-secure future.