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Updated On: Wednesday, 20 June 2018
Development Issues

Food Safety: It's Everyone's Business!

Content by: South-South News

9 April 2015, New York, USA | Brendan Pastor – New technologies and modes of transportation that many have attributed to globalization means that most of our daily interactions are with products that were produced thousands of miles from where they are consumed. Nowhere is this clearer than with food.

The global food supply chain is truly astounding in the 21st century, where everything from beef to bananas travel thousands of miles to reach markets, restaurants, and ultimately, your plate.

Yet one of the most overlooked aspects of the global food industry is health and safety. To be sure, in much of the developed and developing world, there are protocols and organizations in place charged with monitoring food safety – and as technology improves, they are becoming more adept at response.

But even in advanced countries with the most robust infrastructure, food safety issues can fall through the cracks, leading to major health, economic and social disruption. For example, Germany's 2011 E. coli outbreak caused over $1.3 billion in losses for farmers, and resulted in $236 million being sent as emergency aid payments to 22 other European states affected by the crisis.

Around the world, food safety is an even more acute problem in daily life. New data released by the World Health Organization has underscored this reality by providing some of the most widely sourced information on global food safety issues. And to highlight this underreported situation, the WHO has dedicated this year's annual observance of World Health Day to the theme of food safety, titling it, "From farm to plate, make food safe."

"Food can be contaminated by virus, bacteria, parasites and chemical agents, leading to more than 200 different diseases, thus food safety is a major public health issue, Kazuaki Miyagishima, the WHO's director of the food safety department, said ahead of World Health Day.

"Yet, food safety is often an ignored problem, except when there is a major food safety crisis, Miyagishima said, noting that, "It often takes a crisis for the collective consciousness on food safety to be stirred and any serious response to be taken."

Data from the WHO found that in 2010 there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne diseases, including bacteria, viruses, and food contaminated with faeces or biotoxins. Over 351,000 people died from foodborne diseases, especially Salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus. Unsurprisingly, east and sub-Saharan Africa are the regions most at risk. However, globally, almost half of the persons contracting these diseases are children under 5.

Given that much of the food supply chain stretches across national or continental boundaries, creating a global framework to improve food safety is extremely difficult. It relies on a mixture of voluntary engagement from governments and industry groups, along with full compliance with international legal standards and national protocols. However, as might be obvious, full compliance is hard to achieve with such a wide range of groups and no single enforcement mechanism or authority.

Fortunately, part of the solution lies at the consumer part of the supply chain, where many international health groups and non-governmental organizations have had success in promoting awareness around food safety. Practices range from ensuring safe food hygiene and learning how to take care when cooking specific foods that may be hazardous (like raw chicken), to reading the labels when buying and preparing food have proven effective in various parts of the world when the information is made available to consumers.

Still, much of the formula for food safety remains in the realm of governments and industry groups. Miyagishima says that given the impacts on public health and economies, a sustainable response to food safety is need – one that ensures global standards through networks that are firmly in place to protect against food safety risks.

"Different sectors such as agriculture, fishery, industry, tourism, trade, need to join forces to ensure food safety," he said.

Efforts to prevent food emergencies can be strengthened through the implementation 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 such as the joint WHO-FAO International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), to ensure effective and rapid communication during food safety emergencies.

During a tour of a French food market that sources food items from around the world, WHO director-general Margaret Chan underscored the collective responsibilities of all parties in the global food supply chain.

"It is everybody's business, from the farm where they are produced, where food is distributed as in the case of the wholesaler, and to your home," Chan said. "You prepare food at home, you eat food at restaurants. Along an entire food supply chain, every individual can make a contribution to food safety."

"Safe food is good for the country's economy, is important for trade, and is important for tourism, and it is important for the country's reputation as well," Chan stated.

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