The chief scientists of FAO and WHO highlighted the role of science in keeping food safe while stressing the importance of technology during a webinar earlier this week.

The virtual event was organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) to mark the third annual World Food Safety Day.

FAO Director General QU Dongyu and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave video messages at the session that more than 600 people attended.

“Nobody should die from eating food. These are preventable deaths. When food safety is improved we reduce hunger, malnutrition and infant mortality. Children miss fewer days at school, adults increase their productivity, and the strain on health systems is reduced,” said Ghebreyesus.

Understanding risk and hazards
Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at WHO, said science is central to food safety.

“It is important to understand the nature and level of hazards in the food chain because your interventions to ensure food safety depend on understanding, which will have the most impact in reducing the risk,” she said.

“For example, microbiological hazards can multiply or diminish and the risks to consumers depends on how much exposure there is by the time the food reaches the point of consumption. In contrast, levels of chemical hazards generally remain constant once introduced into the food.

“One of the priorities for WHO is to help member states make evidence-informed decisions on risk management. Scientific advice provided by the WHO and FAO to Codex is critical for the development of food safety international standards.”

Swaminathan said when addressing any issue it is important to understand what it is, where it is and the burden of the problem.

“Not all countries have good data systems to capture this so one of our focuses has been on strengthening health information and data systems so countries can start capturing data on what is happening to their populations. We then need to understand the nature of the risks and where contamination may be happening,” she said.

Role of technology emphasized
Whole genome sequencing should be used more widely in food safety, according to Swaminathan.

“We know by sequencing the contaminant and uploading the sequences into public databases, scientists around the world will be in a better position to be able to track and estimate which pathogens are causing problems where and track the origins of some of these contaminants. WGS has become more widely available but it’s still limited in many countries. One of the lessons from the pandemic is we need to invest in laboratory science, training bioinformatics experts and molecular biology,” she said.

Ismahane Elouafi of FAO

“We need explicit targets and indicators to measure progress because we all know what cannot be measured cannot be managed and measuring performance, results and impact is important for any program. These indicators help countries when they do self-assessment to identify strengths and weaknesses as well as measure improvements.”

Ismahane Elouafi, chief scientist at FAO, mentioned the agency’s food safety strategy which is in development and the recently published Microbiological Risk Assessment Guidance for Food, which provides a framework to assess the risk of microbiological hazards using different techniques.

“There is an increasing role of new and emerging technologies in food production, post-harvest treatment, processing, packaging and sanitary treatment. One of the major technologies we need to use properly is whole genome sequencing and also gene editing. WGS allows us to understand better in epidemiological surveillance, food testing, monitoring and outbreak investigation but we need to do more. We need policies and regulation to provide a better environment to use those technologies to protect us and increase the safety of our food systems,” Elouafi said.

“We need to use more artificial intelligence, blockchain and intelligent packaging that can ensure food is authentic, safe and of good quality from the farm level to the consumer.

“We are in an era where we have the ability to gather and analyze big data and connect the different things. We didn’t have that power 10 years ago. The last technology I want to mention is nanotechnology. We are able to see and change things that are very small. Cell-based meat and lab-grown dairy are new technologies we need to invest more in and put them in perspective and provide with the safety net, the right policies and the right connections.”

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