GENEVA — Tuesday, April 7 is World Health Day and the World Health Organization has chosen to emphasize food safety as the focus. The organization has been involved in studies that have found data implicating a need to pay attention to food safety in order to prevent worldwide crises.
Foodborne illness can emerge from a variety of unsafe food-handling practices, and the causes are detrimental to not only the people infected but, if occurring on a large enough scale, can inflict damage to economies. This threat of widespread outbreaks has increased with the globalization of food production.
The sources of illness in unsafe food can be bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, and the resulting illnesses can range from diarrhea to cancer with over 200 other possibilities.
Later this year, the WHO will release a report by the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group to flesh out the impact of foodborne illnesses on the world.
The initial information provided by the study in 2010 showed that there were approximately 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne illnesses that year, resulting in 351,000 deaths. These deaths were largely caused by more extreme foodborne illnesses, including Salmonella and E. Coli. The study also found that Africa carried the largest portion of these diseases, resulting in problems for the region’s people and economies.
Diseases resulting from unsafe food handling are made even more dangerous by the difficulty posed when trying to trace the disease, and the danger of the rapid spreading of the disease before the source can be identified.
WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan elaborates, explaining that, “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.”
Impoverished countries are least able to cope with an outbreak of a foodborne illness and are often more likely to succumb to an outbreak as safe food-handling practices are not as widespread in less developed areas.
Part of the WHO initiative on World Health Day is to educate people about how to prevent foodborne illnesses, highlighting five primary areas of emphasis. Ensuring that food, hands and cooking equipment are all clean is the first area, followed by minimizing cross-contamination by keeping raw and cooked foods separate.
Cooking food thoroughly, particularly meat, seafood and poultry is another key area, and the WHO also emphasizes keeping food at a safe temperature to maintain freshness. The final area to focus on is using clean water for all aspects of food preparation and to ensure that foods have not expired before consuming them.
Educating people about food safety is not the only step toward preventing foodborne illness, as some people lack the resources to adhere to the proper procedures, and the food is often processed through vulnerable facilities before getting to the kitchen.
WHO encourages the development of food safety systems as well as government support for efforts toward food safety. Additionally, prompt and effective responses to food safety emergencies are the best way to minimize economic damage and prevent suffering.
As Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses (diseases transmitted from animal to humans), notes, “It often takes a crisis for the collective consciousness on food safety to be stirred and any serious response to be taken.” WHO’s efforts to raise awareness and educate the public about prevention on World Health Day are a step toward reducing the possibility of such a crisis.
– Maggie Wagner