World Health Day: Food Safety

Food safety victim to absence of co-ordination - WHO

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: WHO. A Twitter chat on food safety will be held today 2-3 CEST.
Picture: WHO. A Twitter chat on food safety will be held today 2-3 CEST.

Related tags Food safety Foodborne illness

Food safety can be the victim of an absence of good co-ordination, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO)'s Director of Food Safety.

Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima told FoodQualityNews that there was a lack of data around the burden of foodborne disease, ahead of World Health Day today (April 7).

This lack of data has made many governments hesitate in investing to prevent foodborne diseases. If we can quantify, we can use the data and determine criteria of foodborne disease and criteria to tackle it as we have vague statistics but the data is not convincing enough,” ​he said.

“One challenge is there is an ignorance in food safety, it is dealt with in some countries by not one ministry but several ministries or departments dealing with food.

“In Eastern Europe and Central Asia sometimes they have five to 10 ministries who deal with food, someone for the primary production of plants, another covers the food industry but not production and inspectors or sanitary controllers without the necessary good level of communication​.”

WHO said the day is an opportunity to recognize the important food safety role of all those involved in food production, and to strengthen collaboration and coordination, to prevent, detect and respond to foodborne diseases efficiently and cost-effectively.

Developed and developing nations

Dr Miyagishima said WHO can assist member states in two ways from its international level.

“We can develop international standards for food safety that apply to developed and developing countries” ​he said.

“Also we can provide technical assistance to countries in need, usually developed countries have their own capacity, it is the developing countries which need more help.

“Food legislation is diverse, it can be different from one country to another and some countries have independent agencies to develop food safety.

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 five years.

“WHO is not the only player, there is the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) which helps countries build capacity.

“National schemes may differ from country to country but WHO and FAO make sure whoever they ask from us, the advice they get is the same.”

WHO established the Foodborne Diseases Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) in 2006 as the burden of foodborne disease had been largely ignored or unquantified, said Miyagishima.

The final report of the group will be published in October this year.

For example, if you have Cancer you go and see the doctor and you are diagnosed. In France or Switzerland you can count on the statistics of Cancer in that year,” ​he said.

“With food poisoning you stay in bed with diarrhoea for two days and treat yourself, not all cases see the doctor so there is a high level of under reporting.

There are a lot of people in food: the producers, transportation, processors, catering down to the consumers at home and each person has a role.

“WHO makes sure national governments take food safety responsibility seriously and put in place sound food safety systems at national level so consumer health is protected and invest in the infrastructure to make the system work.”

Scientific approach

Dr Miyagishima said WHO wants people to take a more scientific approach to food safety.

“Food is cultural and has emotional dimensions, we believe in what we want to believe and adopt behaviour in what is safe and what is not safe,” ​he said.  

“With the slogan [From farm to plate: make food safe] we wanted people to ask the question about the way they eat and purchase the food they do​.”

Making food safer also provided an opportunity to food producing countries, said Dr Miyagishima.

“Consumer needs are always changing so the food production and distribution system needs to adapt and upgrade food safety measures to the changing scenery,” ​he said.  

“The globalisation of food products is an opportunity to food producing countries to make food products safe and that will open up international market and the ability to sell to remote countries. 

“Developing countries exporting means a sustainable way of economic development.”

A Twitter chat using the hashtag #safefoodchat will take place today from 2-3pm CEST and feature WHO/Europe, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

To get involved Tweet questions to @WHO_Europe, using the hashtag #safefoodchat or put questions on WHO/Europe's Facebook page.  

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