Some years ago the World Health Organisation developed a global strategy to tackle food safety. Today, this strategy directs the work of scientists and co-ordinators charged with carrying out a range of risk assessments on foods in the supply chain.
From 1 June this year pre and post harvest food safety and foodborne disease surveillance are covered by the new Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases (FOS), WHO reports.
"The two units - food safety and zoonoses - have been brought together for coherency and to promote an integrated approach from farm to fork," WHO food microbiologist Peter Benembarek tells FoodNavigator.com.
That WHO has linked the two departments together is but a further example of the priority food safety issues represent in today's world dogged by increasing alerts to food supplies.
Earlier this year, for example, an illegal red colour Sudan 1 detected in the UK food chain left a trail of recalls, and costs in excess of €200 million to the food industry.
Funded by WHO member states (regular budget of $3.9 million for two year period) the food safety department at WHO is charged with providing scientific advice (notably risk assessments) on food issues, supporting the work of international food standards group Codex Alimentarius, and offering support to developing countries on food safety - control, production, regulations - issues.
"Through their prioritisation system, Codex provides us with list of risk assessments," says Benembarek. In addition the organisation receives requests from member states.
The speed of assessment for the WHO scientists depends on the topic and resources.
Microbiological risks (about two carried out a year), such as the food pathogens listeria in ready-made foods or salmonella in chicken, can take a couple of years.
Chemicals, such as flavourings or colouring agents, are much quicker. For example, the group has just delivered its findings on 15 additives, and 130 flavouring agents - all carried out within the year.
WHO's food safety department based in Switzerland is currently playing a key role in co-ordinating the global effort to improve understanding of the potential carcinogen acrylamide. This harmful chemical was detected in carbohydrate-rich fried foods in 2002, immediately provoking a reaction from industry and government that set about tackling the issue.
"We are moving fast, and have already had good results, advancing our understanding of acrylamide," comments the WHO scientist.