As consumers around the world face the triple threat of malnutrition, unsafe food, and increasing food insecurity, we must focus on the connection between safer food, better health - the theme of this year’s World Food Safety Day, convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Codex Alimentarius. Today, we celebrate the World Health Assembly’s recent agreement to adopt the WHO Global Strategy for Food Safety.
One in three people worldwide suffer from malnutrition, and one in ten become ill from foodborne disease. Compounding those statistics is the fact that many nutrient-dense foods can carry foodborne pathogens, hazards that are linked to the highest foodborne disease burden in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
While LMICs in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for 41% of the world population, they bear 53% of the illnesses and 75% of the deaths linked to unsafe food. As anyone who has experienced foodborne illness knows, these health impacts increase healthcare expenses and decrease productivity – which are estimated to cost LMICs $95 billion annually, according to the World Bank.
The WHO Global Strategy for Food Safety is a milestone in the work to promote health, keep the world safe and protect the vulnerable, by strengthening innovative public health approaches and multisectoral collaborations. The strategy provides foundational support to programs like EatSafe: Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food, a USAID-funded Feed the Future program and consortium led by GAIN that aims to improve the safety of nutritious foods in traditional markets. Global strategies from multi-lateral organizations like the WHO reinforce and give direction to collaborative food safety efforts and provide a roadmap for key stakeholders to act in a coordinated fashion.
What can national governments do?
The WHO Global Strategy calls on national governments to develop or update food safety implementation plans to modernize their food safety programs to better protect consumers and food businesses from the consequences of unsafe food. Government action can suffer from “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Many national agencies may have a role in food safety, but they often lack effective coordination to implement and enforce national food safety policy. Legislation is frequently outdated, so WHO calls for countries to adopt updated standards and guidance, coupled with appropriate compliance, verification, and enforcement activities. Finally, it is essential that governments link health care and disease surveillance systems to food safety programs. Preventive control programs, which form the heart of food safety in the modern era, will only work if foodborne hazards are identified through a robust surveillance program. Government action can protect both consumers and food businesses from the many consequences of unsafe food.
Everyone has a role to play
Governments are not solely responsible for the critical gaps that result in this unacceptable burden of foodborne disease. All food system actors play a role in food safety: from the farmers and ranchers to the processors and retailers, and onto the consumers and chefs that prepare the food into tasty and nutritious meals. Improving food safety isn’t rocket science – there are many proven methods, like Good Manufacturing Practices, HACCP and preventive controls, that can increase protections throughout the food chain. Engaging consumers using approaches like WHO’s 5 Keys to Safer Food is vital to our success. Emerging strategies, like EatSafe’s informal sector interventions, can also be leveraged to engage and empower key stakeholders across the food system.
The WHO Global Strategy for Food Safety brings renewed impetus among people and organizations that care about food safety. GAIN and WHO will work together to support the global food safety efforts, from raising awareness through World Food Safety Day and the Food Safety Community of Practice, to working for improved food safety in the informal food sector and traditional markets; and by promoting the development of global standards for traditional markets by CODEX. As recognized by many nations attending the World Health Assembly in May, from farm to table, safe food is both an individual right and a shared responsibility.