Progress on food safety has brought benefits including greater food security and more stable livelihoods to South-East Asia, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director of the region.

In a speech to mark World Food Safety Day, Director Poonam Khetrapal Singh said the area has played a key role in accelerating action to tackle food safety issues in recent years.

Every year nearly 600 million people fall sick and 420,000 die globally because they consume food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals. The WHO South-East Asia Region is particularly affected, accounting for around 150 million illnesses and 175,000 deaths, costing nations an estimated $95 billion in lost productivity.

“Since 2015 almost all member states have assessed existing foodborne disease surveillance and response capacity and identified priority actions. With WHO support, in 2018 member states carried out a multi-country simulation exercise to test foodborne disease outbreak coordination and communication. Foodborne diseases are an increasingly acute risk, especially given the transnational and global processes on which food production and consumption rely,” she said.

A new Framework for Action on Food Safety was recently adopted to harmonize standards and build on achievements countries made under the 2014 to 2018 strategy on food safety.

Three points of focus
Singh identified three priority areas including strengthening food safety-related governance and regulations.

“By ensuring food safety legislation and standards are regularly reviewed and updated, national authorities can better identify and address gaps and emerging risks, while also aligning national legislation and standards with international requirements.”

She added there was a need for countries to avoid duplication and ensure responsibilities are well defined and carried out. Though most countries have harmonized national standards with Codex standards, several gaps persist, such as definition of private sector responsibilities and quality of information collected and used for risk assessments.

Second was scaling up foodborne disease surveillance and emergency preparedness, said Singh.

Thanks to the 2014 to 2018 strategy, each member state has established event-based surveillance while a few now have indicator-based surveillance.

“As countries accelerate their efforts, they have great potential to strengthen the provision of reliable epidemiological analysis, especially to identify the source of outbreaks. To do that, access to laboratory resources should be scaled up, and the investigative capacity of key focal points enhanced,” said Singh.

The final area was improving communication with a focus on emergency response, using tools such as the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN).

Singh said all member states are participating in the platform, with some applying it at the sub-national level.

“Still, greater coordination between national INFOSAN and International Health Regulations focal points would strengthen the mechanism, for which regional simulation exercises – similar to that undertaken in 2018 – will be an important capacity building measure.”

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