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Protect our food to protect our health

South-East Asia and Africa record high levels of foodborne disease – often the WHO's best practices are not feasible in rural areas (Image: Robert at Picasa, 2006-08-12-Andong, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
South-East Asia and Africa record high levels of foodborne disease – often the WHO's best practices are not feasible in rural areas (Image: Robert at Picasa, 2006-08-12-Andong, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Last week's World Health Day focused on the issue of food safety. In today's guest blog, Isabelle looks at how local problems can become global catastrophes, and the serious consequences contaminated food can have for people in the developing world.

The theme of this year’s World Health Day is food safety. Amidst other health concerns such as the Ebola outbreak, deteriorating air quality, and poor standards of health care, this issue may not seem so critical.

However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe food can contain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and/or chemical substances that have the potential to cause more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancer. WHO will release results from research on foodborne diseases in October; but previous findings show over 40% of the people who suffer from contaminated food are children under the age of five.

Make it safe at source

The slogan for World Health Day 2015 is “From farm to plate, make food safe”. This highlights the need to safeguard the entire food supply chain. The condition of the food can get compromised at several points: during harvesting and packaging at farms, fisheries, and factories, as well as during transportation, sales, and cooking. Diseases like salmonella poisoning, hepatitis A, bird flu, and viral gastroenteritis are all caused by dangerous micro-organisms that are found in faeces, soil, water, insects and pests, pets, farm and marine animals, and people. Unsafe food can be anything from toxic shellfish and contaminated vegetables to undercooked animal meat.

WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, says: “Food production has been industrialized and its trade and distribution have been globalized. 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.”

Five keys to safer food

An inspector checks carrots for safety
Food safety must remain a priority in all environments to minimise food safety risks around the world (Photo: Army Medicine)
While food can become contaminated before it reaches the grocery store, there are several ways in which individuals can prevent or at least minimise occurrences of unsafe food. Apart from practising safe food hygiene, one can also be more careful with cooking foods such as raw chicken, as well as ensuring packaged foods are not past their expiry date. WHO states that proper food preparation can prevent most foodborne diseases, and suggests “Five Keys to Safer Food”: keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials.

Although foodborne diseases are also a problem in developed countries, they have bigger consequences for developing regions. Africa records the highest for enteric foodborne disease, and is followed by South-East Asia. While WHO’s Five Keys are best practices, they might not be feasible in rural areas where, for example, there are no fridges or limited access to water.

Another difficulty is attitudes: numerous communities disregard or downplay the issue of food safety. For example, street food is very popular, but it has such a bad reputation regarding cleanliness and health because many food vendors and handlers are either unwilling to follow safety standards, or they don’t have the knowledge and infrastructure in place to help them maintain hygienic conditions for the food.

Global ramifications

It’s estimated that every year, nearly two million people die from diarrhoeal diseases, which are mostly attributed to contaminated food and water. These cycles of diarrhoea and malnutrition put strain on health care systems. Additionally, foodborne diseases have long-term health consequences, including cancer, arthritis, and neurological problems. Infants & children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses are particularly at risk.

Unsafe food also affects economies, development, and international trade. For example, the 2011 E. coli outbreak in Germany was reported to have caused a $1.3 billion loss for farmers and industries, and millions of dollars’ worth of emergency aid payments to European Union Member States.

Coordination against contamination

Ensuring food safety is a complex process, as it traverses several sectors – such as agriculture, environment, trade and commerce – and requires the cooperation of various agencies and organisations involved in food, education, and emergency aid. What we need is quick and effective response and communication during food safety emergencies; the enforcement and strengthening of regulations to prevent contamination; the implementation of educational initiatives centred on hygienic food practices; and internationally agreed standards of food safety and health protection.

These standards have to be applied to several areas: use of pesticides on farms, chemicals used for treating animals, environmental pollution, food additives, food handler policies, etc. Such measures will undoubtedly require many years of collaboration, yet these are critical steps to follow if we want to have any impact on alleviating a problem that’s affecting and taking away the lives of so many people each year.

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