Foodborne diseases are a serious threat to people in Africa, especially Africans already weakened from devastating conditions such as malaria and AIDS.
Food and water-borne diseases are estimated to cause about 700 000 deaths in Africa every year - one third of global deaths from food illnesses, according to the FAO and the WHO.
Under the auspices of the United Nation's FAO and World Health Organisation, over 200 food safety officials from across the globe have gathered this week to face the challenge of establishing ways and means to improve current food safety systems.
"Food and water transmit a variety of disease-causing agents which are at the origin of the high burden of diarrhoea cases. In Africa, these are estimated at up to four episodes per child per year," says Dr Chris Ngenda Mwikisa, at WHO's regional office for Africa.
Discussions will focus on the complete food production chain, devoting special attention to areas where intervention can significantly lower the risk from foodborne disease. For example, the prevention and control of mycotoxins in staple African crops such as maize, groundnuts and dried fruits.
Devastating outbreaks of foodborne diseases such as cholera, salmonellosis, entero-haemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), hepatitis A and acute aflatoxicosis have occurred in a number of African countries recently.
Already this year 34 000 cases of cholera due to contaminated water and food have been reported in 30 countries, with more than 1 000 deaths. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, says Mwikisa.
In parallel, the UN agencies believe the failure of many African produced food products to meet international food safety and quality standards is a clear barrier to trade.
"Establishing pan-African food safety standards will go a long way towards helping Africa join in international trade and raise African living standards," adds Hartwig de Haen, FAO assistant director-general.
The failure to meet new food standards issued by the European Union in 2001 resulted in a 64 per cent drop in exports from Africa of cereals, dried fruits and nuts, representing a loss of $670m, the FAO and WHO said.