The European region cannot afford to lose focus on other health threats during the coronavirus outbreak, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Officials from the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe said unsafe food is still affecting millions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the region must continue to improve food safety.

It is estimated that every year, 23 million people fall ill in the WHO’s European region and 4,700 die from eating contaminated food, according to data published by the WHO in 2015. Unsafe food also plays a role in the socioeconomic development of countries as it affects international trade and market opportunities.

In 2019, WHO Europe warned these figures were just the tip of the iceberg and the true number of cases was unknown. The stats translate to 44 people falling sick every minute from contaminated food.

Risk cannot be eliminated; it must be managed
Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said food safety is a complex health issue.

“Food safety risks cannot be entirely eliminated but must be managed along the entire food chain, from farm to table. Reducing food safety risks requires collaboration across sectors, stakeholders and national borders.”

This year’s World Food Safety Day, on June 7, was marked during the COVID-19 crisis. WHO Europe called for leadership and commitment by policymakers, coordination and partnerships across sectors, stakeholders and countries, allocation of adequate resources and responsibility by all concerned to do what it takes to make food safe.

There was a reduced level of reports of foodborne outbreaks in the system used to detect and assess multi-country incidents in April, but activity returned to normal during May, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

WHO Europe is working with health and food safety authorities in the region to implement the Strategic Plan for Food Safety including Foodborne Zoonoses 2013 to 2022.

The most frequent causes of foodborne illness are agents such as norovirus, Campylobacter and the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis. Non-typhoidal Salmonella causes the most deaths. Other causes of deaths include Listeria monocytogenes and Echinococcus multilocularis.

EFSA raises awareness of food safety
A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) survey last year found while 2 in 5 Europeans are interested in food safety, only 1 in 5 say it is their main concern when choosing food. Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a timely reminder of the dangers posed by pathogens and the importance of good hygiene practices. Although food is not the source or a vehicle of transmission of COVID-19, the emergency has shown all too painfully the impact these diseases can have on public health and socio-economic wellbeing,” said Bernhard Url, EFSA’s executive director.

“There is no doubt that food safety in Europe is a shared responsibility. Cooperation not only helps share the workload and the necessary resources, but also provides the network to channel information and best practice so that everyone in Europe can benefit from the EU system.”

EFSA hosted a Twitter Q&A this week with answers coming from Url and Codex secretary Tom Heilandt. Questions were submitted by individuals and groups such as BEUC (The European Consumer Organization) and FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the EU food and drink industry.

In response to a question from Food Safety News about the trend in Shiga Toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infections, Url said: “Looking at previous years STEC was steady in 2016 to 2017 rising to the third most reported disease in the EU in 2018. We’ll look at 2019 data when it’s been collected and look to see if there is a steady upward trend.”

Url said there was no simple answer when asked about a rise in the number of people getting sick, being hospitalized and dying in foodborne outbreaks in the EU in 2018 compared to 2017.

“There are annual fluctuations that could be influenced by many factors including seasonal, travel and climate. That’s why we tend to look at multi-annual trends that allow comparison of overall figures,” he said.

An EFSA spokesperson said the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the crucial role of preparedness, surveillance, and interdisciplinary collaboration at national, regional and international levels as well as food hygiene from farm to fork.

“In consultation with the European Commission and ECDC, EFSA granted one additional month to member states to meet their legal reporting deadline,” the spokesperson said. “It remains to be seen the impact of resource re-allocation to COVID-19 by member states on data quality, if any. This will be checked when we analyze data.”

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