Food-borne illnesses claim 420,000 a year — UN
With estimates that 600 million — almost 1 in 10 people in the world — fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year — a public health burden of similar magnitude to malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS — the UN General Assembly, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), dedicated a day to the issue as a means of raising public awareness on the importance of keeping food safe, whether one is a farmer, processor, distributor or consumer.
World Food Safety Day was observed for the first time ever last Friday, June 7.
“Most people spend very little time thinking about food safety unless there is a crisis or a scandal of some sort. Yet, apart from the air that we breathe and the water we drink, there is nothing of more direct and routine importance to each of us every day,” said Dr Renata Clarke, FAO's subregional coordinator.
She added that the WHO estimates regarding the public health burden of food borne illness is a “call to action” for governments to invest more in making food supplies safe.
To that end, senior veterinary specialist in Jamaica's Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Dr Suzan McLennon-Miguel, says a robust food safety programme is being developed for the island which will require updating the present regulations and the establishment of surveillance programmes for crops and animal production.
The inputs from these programmes will feed into the National Food-borne Surveillance programme so as to monitor the food being produced and traded in order to reduce food fraud, food contamination, and to ensure all foods from the farm are properly labelled for traceability.
“This means we're going to have to set up checks and balances along the food chain, starting from the farm. It means we're going to go to farmers to check their systems and take samples for farm certification,” McLennon-Migue explained.
Short-term effects of illness due to food-borne pathogenic bacteria and viruses can be devastating, as can long-term consequences such as irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis, chronic kidney disease, and neurological disorders.
The FAO added that chemical contamination of foods is also of great concern. for example, aflatoxin, the most potent cancer-causing agent known, is a common contaminant in such foods as corn and peanuts if the products are poorly handled and stored.
“Climate change is having an impact on the occurrence of these chemical and microbiological contaminants, while other environmental contaminants such as heavy metals (eg mercury and lead) and persistent organic pollutants from industrial activity can also find their way into the food chain — negatively affecting the health of consumers,” the FAO's Clarke added.
The World Bank issued a report earlier this year which estimates that unsafe food costs lower-and middle-income countries over US$100 billion annually, mainly due to lost productivity.
“Diseases caused by food contaminated with toxic chemicals or microorganisms are a serious cause of health-related problems globally. The most common agent which causes food-borne disease (FBD) outbreaks in the Caribbean is norovirus, which is highly contagious and can affect everyone. The symptoms of FBDs are diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain, which are sometimes accompanied by other symptoms such as fever and headaches,” said advisor, Climate and Environmental Determinants of Health in the PAHO/WHO Office for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Dr Karen Polson-Edwards.
Polson-Edwards said the need for vigilance is especially great in the Caribbean, since the majority of the food supply is imported. “Therefore, consumers largely have to rely on an invisible system of controls by food producers and by governments that are required to keep this food safe,” she said.
Mishandling of food within the home is another source of of food-borne illness outbreaks, with some common malpractices being leaving food out for longer than two hours before it is cooked, using the same cutting board to prepare fresh meats and vegetables, and defrosting meat outside instead of inside the fridge.
“It is important that consumers protect themselves and their families at home by choosing safe food vendors and restaurants that follow good hygiene practices,” Polson-Edwards said.
The theme for World Food Safety Day was 'Food Safety is Everyone's Business'.