11 May 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Food security and uncompromised food security are but two of the challenges facing the food industry.

When the national lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 23 March 2020, it was indicated that South Africa’s food supply sector was to remain fully functional. This sector was one of the essential systems for livelihood and thus remained operational.

Prof Arno Hugo from the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology’s Food Science division at the University of the Free State (UFS) participated in a webinar, #MondayMotivation on Foodfocus with academics in the food industry, Profs Lise Korsten from the University of Pretoria (Department of Plant and Soil Sciences) and Pieter Gouws (Department of Food Science and Director of the Centre for Food Safety) from Stellenbosch University.

Foodfocus’ #MondayMotivation was presented by Linda Jackson, a Director at Food Focus SA. The platform provides information from recognised experts and services providers and offers training, consultation, and auditing to ensure that role players comply with the regulations set for the industry. 

A major focus of the webinar was on how well the food industry is performing under pressure during the lockdown initiated by government due to COVID-19. During the webinar, the academics also elaborated on their connection to the food industry. 

Uncompromised food safety

Prof Hugo thanked the food industry for their commitment in this difficult time and encouraged them to continue with the essential services that they provide. This includes the agricultural production sector, the food ingredients industry, the food processing industry, the food distribution industry, as well as the retail sector. 

“You are the frontline workers, our first line of defence, South Africans rely on you. You bring stability to the lives of every South African, providing us with safe and nutritious food. Due to your endeavours, our supermarket shelves are full and panic buying was therefore unnecessary. You work under difficult conditions at great personal risk, travelling to and from work. When working on factory floors, you had to adapt to even more strict hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of the virus,” he said. 

Prof Korsten said the food industry is in uncertain times. She emphasised the role that the industry is playing in food security – providing food of uncompromised safety. Many people are concerned about whether the food they purchase is still safe. 

“The circumstances under which the food industry is working are incredibly challenging,” said Prof Gouws. The Centre for Food Safety are working, among others, on building a food safety culture. “It is important to maintain consumer confidence in the safety of food as well as the availability of food. I believe the food industry is geared to ensure that the virus will not spread,” he added.

Is South Africa food secure?

Responding to the question of food security, Prof Hugo supported a statement by Agri SA Executive Director, Omri van Zyl, who said: “With the implementation of phase four lockdown, the entire South African agricultural value chain, with the exception of the local sale of tobacco and alcohol, was exempted. The export of wine and other agricultural products is now also allowed. Important agricultural services such as certification, inspection and quality control can continue.”

Referring to the opinion expressed by Paul Makhube, senior agricultural economist at FNB, Prof Hugo believes that one can stay positive about food security in the country. Makhube said: “South Africa expects its third largest maize harvest in history, while good harvests are also expected for soya peanuts and sunflower seed.”

“After the good rains, conditions are also more favourable for livestock production in some regions,” added Prof Hugo. 

Makhube continued: “Livestock auctions can continue under Level 4 restrictions under strict hygienic conditions. The large reduction in the fuel price will also result in lower input and harvesting costs for farmers and lower food distribution costs.”

Prof Hugo also endorses the positive sentiments about food security from Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, who said: “South Africa will produce significantly more maize than the local consumption and are not much dependent on meat imports, especially beef.”

“Due to a strong and stable primary agricultural sector and an efficient and technologically advanced food processing industry, South African consumers are assured of the availability of enough safe and nutritious food. From a food security perspective, South Africa is in a much better position than many other countries in the world,” Prof Hugo believes. 

“A concern in our current situation, however, is household food security. Urgent interventions should be implemented in order for sufficient food supplies to reach the vulnerable and rising unemployed,” Prof Hugo reconed.

UFS adds to food science research

The UFS Division of Food Science is training undergraduate and postgraduate students for the food industry. Their research is mostly focused on chemical, microbiological and sensory quality, and stability of food. He added that the UFS has just completed the construction of a brand-new, well-equipped, and staffed Sensory Laboratory to deliver commercial sensory analysis services to the food industry.

Prof Hugo, whose field of specialisation is meat sciences and technology with a special interest in the lipid components of meat products, said the research he is working on includes how to change the diet of meat-producing animals to improve the health properties of fat tissue in meat. He is also investigating the use of natural preservatives and the effect of salt reduction on the quality and stability of meat products. This research group’s expertise in lipid chemistry also allows the department to conduct research on fats and oils and on the fat component of milk, dairy products, and plant foods.

He indicated that the department is working from home during lockdown to ensure that online teaching can take place, and that Food Science students at the UFS will be able to complete the 2020 Food Science curriculum. 

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