GENEVA — There is no such thing as one type of food safety for the rich and another for the poor, according to the head of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the health of all people, no matter where they live and what they eat, must be protected equally. He was among those who spoke to attendees of the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva.

Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said there is a legacy of massive under-reporting of people sickened by unsafe food.

“Pathogenic agents in food, whether they are microbial such as viruses, bacteria and parasites or chemical from toxins and heavy metals to pesticide residues and veterinary drugs carry risks to human health. But too often people do not make a connection between symptoms they are experiencing – or could experience in the future – and the food-related risks they have been exposed to,” he said at the forum, which was April 23-24..

“What makes food safety unique and different from other areas of public health is its multi-sectoral nature. It cuts across different sectors such as health, agriculture, fisheries, industry, trade, environment, tourism, education, and economy. It also crosses across national borders. Food produced in one country today can, within 24 hours, be on the other side of the planet and on its way to shops, restaurants and homes.”

Direct impact on people worldwide
In 2015, WHO published global burden of foodborne disease estimates. These showed that almost one in 10 people fall ill every year and 420,000 die from unsafe food. Children aged under five carried one-third of the disease burden.

Photo by Joe Whitworth

Ghebreyesus said that while the first World Food Safety Day, which will be held this year on June 7, was important the issue should not be prioritized only once a year.

“Every meal, every snack, every time dishes are prepared, whenever foods are grown, produced and transported – all of these are moments when food safety must be prioritized,” he said.

“While [the] forum rightly places strong emphasis on the economic and trade aspects of food, we must never forget the tens of millions of people who are on the receiving end of the burden of foodborne diseases. Our actions here will have a direct impact on the lives and health of people all around the world. The burden is upon us to make the most of these political opportunities and take food safety to the next level.”

The event was held in Switzerland – a country that imports around half of all its food.

Aside from scientific facts, ethical aspects – such as sustainability, animal welfare and environmental protection – are becoming more important in international trade and increasing the pressure on countries that import a lot of goods, according to the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) in Switzerland.

FSVO officials said international standards are important for the country and must be based on science but also take cultural factors or consumer expectations into account.

Capacity to trade
Alan Wolff, deputy director general of the WTO, said national authorities are the first defense against spread of disease.

“All authorities need functioning food control systems to ensure that imported food is safe; consumers need to be able to trust that it complies with the same food safety requirements as domestically-produced food.”

Exporters need to comply with importing countries’ food safety requirements, said Wolff.

“Tariffs are seen often as a primary barrier to trade. However, the way in which standards are applied to imports can block trade in a food product entirely. For this reason, a lack of capacity to meet food safety requirements can be a key barrier to participation in international trade, especially for exporters in developing countries, and more generally for SMEs.”

He added the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement has contributed to protecting public health while minimizing obstacles to trade by requiring food safety requirements are based on science.

Wolff said helping ensure countries have the capacity to implement food safety measures at home and comply with requirements in export markets is a key priority and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) and Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) help build capacity.

“Thanks to STDF support, over 70 projects have helped farmers, processors, traders and governments boost their capacity to meet international food safety standards, protect consumer safety and gain improved access to global markets. Across Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, STDF projects have also helped farmers to use lower-risk pesticides on tropical crops, thereby meeting international food safety standards and facilitating safe trade.”

Wolff said importance of this work will only increase in the future.

“Demand for food will increase as the world’s population grows, consumption patterns and consumer preferences evolve, supply chains become more complex, and climate change leads to changes in growing conditions. In addition, technological change has an impact of food production, on the tools and solutions available for food safety, and on trade practices.”

The event built on the First International Food Safety Conference held by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), WHO and African Union which took place in Addis Ababa in February this year.


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