Food safety policies: key tools for hunger and malnutrition eradication

 

Food borne illness is a major but underestimated public health problem in most countries of the world. Unsafe food causes many acute and lifelong diseases, ranging from diarrhoeal diseases to various forms of cancer. A safe food supply supports the economy, trade and tourism, contributes to food and nutrition security, and stimulates sustainable development.

Credit: WHO /Olivier Asselin

Between 2008 and 2010 an unprecedented number of food related outbreaks were reported to the WHO Regional Office for Africa highlighting further the public health significance of foodborne diseases. These included Anthrax in Zimbabwe; typhoid fever and botulism in Uganda; chemical poisoning due to consumption of seed beans and maize in Kenya and Nigeria; cholera in several countries, such as Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe; pesticide poisoning from cabbage and other vegetables in Senegal; fish mouse in Mauritius; mushroom poisoning in Algeria; botulism and hepatitis A in Uganda.

Food insecurity in the African Region threatens the lives of millions of people, especially those included in the high risk groups.

Diarrhoea, an important cause of death among children under 5 years old in the Region, is the most common foodborne illness.

Cholera traditionally associated with water has been shown to be largely foodborne and remains a major public health problem in the Region.

Mycotoxins, in particular aflotoxins, are also a great concern.

Many factors have contributed to the dramatic increase in foodborne incidents:

Urbanization has revolutionized the food chain and in the cities of the African Region the remarkable rise of street vended foods is with no doubt a contributory factor.

Industrialization has resulted in the introduction of a vast range of chemicals into the environment and these may find their way into the food chain. Similarly, modern agricultural products call for an increase in the use of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides, which may also contaminate foods.

Humanitarian emergencies such as war, famine and natural disasters provide unparalleled opportunities for foodborne disease outbreaks.

Emerging zoonoses are a raising concern worldwide, as globalization and international food trade can rapidly transform a local problem into a global public health threat [watch the video].

Other confounding factors are low public awareness of food hygiene, pervasive poverty coupled with poor environmental sanitation, and lack of facilities for the preparation of safe food.

Additionally, new challenges are emerging as new technologies are applied to food production and processing.

Building efficient food safety systems

Besides economic, environmental and social factors, the increase of foodborne incidents is aggravated by the general lack of facilities to effectively implement food control, weak coordination in food safety management, lack of or inadequate food regulations and policies, weak surveillance and the capacity to respond to outbreaks.

Ensuring the safety of the food supply requires formalized policies and legislative instruments, conforming to international standards, which will provide a coherent framework for national strategies and action.

Foodborne disease surveillance is also essential, for estimating the burden of disease, monitoring trends, detecting outbreaks and providing data for evidence-based policy decision-making.

Modern and efficient food safety systems rely increasingly on the global availability and use of quality data and other information on foodborne diseases and exposure to food contaminants, as well as data on the performance of controls throughout the food-chain.

For this system to work cross-sector approach and effective dialogue among human health, veterinary and food-related stakeholders is essential. 

Furthermore, building laboratory capacity and strengthening the skills of all public health actors, in particular laboratory personnel, is key as laboratory services are the cornerstone to foodborne disease surveillance.

The WHO Regional Office for Africa has several technical documents and resources which can help Members States establishing their own food safety policies and intervention strategies.

 

Useful documents

Guidelines for developing and implementing a national food safety policy and strategic plan
[English] [French] [Portuguese]
Manual for integrated foodborne disease surveillance in the WHO African Region
[English] [French] [Portuguese]
Food Safety and Nutrition Food Law Guidelines
Regional food safety and health strategy
[English] [French] [Portuguese]
National food safety systems in Africa – A situation analysis
Advancing food safety initiatives: strategic plan for food safety including foodborne zoonoses 2013-2022
Advancing food safety initiatives (WHA 63.3 resolution)

Useful resources

AHO data on food safety and nutrition
Five keys to safer food (flyer)
Food safety related publications
Food safety databases
International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN)
Global Foodborne Infections Network
International Health Regulations
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations