WHO is highlighting the challenges and opportunities associated with food safety under the slogan “From farm to plate, make food safe.”
According to WHO, new data on the harm caused by foodborne illnesses underscore the global threats posed by unsafe foods, and the need for coordinated, cross-border action across the entire food supply chain.
“Food production has been industrialized and its trade and distribution have been globalized,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “These changes introduce multiple new opportunities for food to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals.
“A local food safety problem can rapidly become an international emergency. Investigation of an outbreak of foodborne disease is vastly more complicated when a single plate or package of food contains ingredients from multiple countries.”
Unsafe food can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, and cause more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. Examples of unsafe food include undercooked foods of animal origin, fruits and vegetables contaminated with faeces, and shellfish containing marine biotoxins.
Today, WHO is issuing the first findings from what is a broader ongoing analysis of the global burden of foodborne diseases. The full results of this research, being undertaken by WHO’s Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG), are expected to be released in October 2015.
Some important results are related to enteric infections caused by viruses, bacteria and protozoa that enter the body by ingestion of contaminated food. The initial FERG figures, from 2010, show that:
There were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne enteric diseases and 351 000 associated deaths;
The enteric disease agents responsible for most deaths were Salmonella Typhi (52 000 deaths), enteropathogenic E. coli (37 000) and norovirus (35 000);
The African region recorded the highest disease burden for enteric foodborne disease, followed by South-East Asia;
Over 40% people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children aged under 5 years.
Unsafe food also poses major economic risks, especially in a globalized world. Germany’s 2011 E.coli outbreak reportedly caused US$ 1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries and US$ 236 million in emergency aid payments to 22 European Union Member States.
Efforts to prevent such emergencies can be strengthened, however, through development of robust food safety systems that drive collective government and public action to safeguard against chemical or microbial contamination of food. Global and national level measures can be taken, including using international platforms, like the joint WHO-FAO International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), to ensure effective and rapid communication during food safety emergencies.
“It often takes a crisis for the collective consciousness on food safety to be stirred and any serious response to be taken,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses. “The impacts on public health and economies can be great. A sustainable response, therefore, is needed that ensures standards, checks and networks are in place to protect against food safety risks.”
AUSVEG has said the focus on food safety is just another demonstration of why Australia needs a better Country of Origin Labelling system and tougher checks on imported food.
“The problem is that our current Country of Origin Labelling laws are not clear enough and don’t always allow consumers to exercise choice, and our imported food inspection scheme only screens the majority of imported fruit and vegetable consignments at a low rate of only five per cent.”
“The recent hepatitis health scare involving imported berries from China sparked a chorus of calls for stricter testing of imported produce and clearer country of origin labelling to provide consumers with more accurate information about the food they are eating, and it is time for meaningful action.”
“AUSVEG appreciates the fact the government has recognised the overwhelming level of consumer support for action on this important issue, given around 26,000 Australians have written to Agriculture Minister the Hon. Barnaby Joyce MP urging meaningful reform of Country of Origin Labelling.”
“We support the Australian Government consulting with consumers and industry in relation to improving Country of Origin Labelling and we look forward to seeing meaningful changes enacted by the Government following consideration by the Cabinet in August.”
“Given World Health Day’s focus on food safety, there is no better time for key decision makers in the Federal Government to ensure Australian’s get the fully transparent Country of Origin Labelling system they are crying out for.”