A regional director at the World Health Organization has said the number of people getting sick or dying from unsafe food is “staggering” and “unacceptable.”

Every year in Europe and Central Asia, more than 23 million people fall sick from foodborne illness, with the poor and young mostly impacted. Such illness is responsible for 5,000 preventable deaths annually, according to WHO statistics published in 2015.

Hans Kluge, WHO Europe regional director, said the region can and needs to do better.

“The staggering number of individuals falling sick or dying after consuming unsafe food in our region is unacceptable. Food safety is a highly complex health issue involving multiple domestic and international stakeholders. Over 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances,” he said during a webinar on World Food Safety Day.

“In recent years, food safety in the region has been affected by new developments that have changed the conditions in which food is produced, processed, traded and consumed. Globalization of the food chain has changed consumer habits and international trade in food and agricultural products is greater than before. This complexity increases the risks of unsafe food spreading across borders and affects the way we manage food safety risks.

“COVID-19 has imposed additional challenges for producers and food safety authorities. These include the need for implementation of measures to control and reduce the risk of transmission in food businesses. WHO EU supports its 53 member states to strengthen food safety. Today should inspire action at all levels to prevent, detect and manage food safety risks in the region.”

Rising interest across the region
More than 200 participants joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and WHO­ virtual event, which is available to watch here.

Vladimir Rakhmanin, FAO assistant director general and regional representative for Europe and Central Asia, said food safety has always been a priority for the region.

“We recognize the ongoing efforts of member countries, continuously improving their regulatory frameworks, scientific and technological capacities for official controls to protect consumers and enable farmers and businesses to comply with food safety requirements and access local, regional and international markets,” he said.

“Food safety is increasing in prominence across the region with more activities and projects being implemented. As we advocate for greater investment in and attention to food safety, we reaffirm the support and commitment to working with partners and governments, to scale up efforts including strengthening resilient, well-functioning and safe food value chains.

“Among the many lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, the experiences of the past 15 months has raised awareness of the importance of demonstrating compliance with food safety requirements as a pre-condition to access markets. Food safety risks and hazards can easily transfer from one country to another and unsafe food can quickly spread to many countries.”

Real threats vs perceived concerns
Delia Grace, a professor of food safety systems at the University of Greenwich, said at one time food safety was not a priority to low and middle income countries.

“The 2015 WHO report found the health burden of food safety was equivalent to that of HIV, tuberculosis or AIDS so that made food safety come to the top of the list that people in developing countries were worried about. It’s always been a priority in high income countries partly because we’ve more or less got rid of most infectious diseases,” she said.

Delia Grace

Grace, a contributing scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), said there can be many hazards in the informal sector such as aflatoxins in milk from Nairobi, Bacillus cereus in boiled milk in Abidjan, Staphylococcus Aureus in farmed fish in Egypt, Trichinella in pork in Uganda and Listeria in milk and fish in Ghana.

“This is a saying we have in food safety, what you worry about and what kills you are not the same. I bet maybe half of the participants are more worried about GMOs, pesticides, antibiotic residues and they are not so worried about germs as they feel they can deal with germs,” she said.

“When we did this in Vietnam we asked people what their concern was and they were very concerned about chemicals and not very concerned about germs. We knew this was wrong as we are food safety specialists but they didn’t believe us so we had to do the tests. We found only 1 percent of 366 kidney, liver and pork samples were over the regulatory levels and they had minor implications as they were so low but when we looked at germs 13 percent of people were getting sick every year from salmonellosis.”

Experts can also be wrong, said Grace citing an upcoming World Bank study looking at what specialists said compared to the burden estimated by WHO.

“Experts where very worried about anthrax and Brucella but when you look at the burden it was much more likely to be E. coli and Salmonella,” she said.

COVID influence on food safety and EU on WFSD
Food safety expert Leon Gorris presented a study commissioned by WHO and FAO to look at whether COVID-19 has changed how food safety risks are managed in Europe and Central Asia.

Leon Gorris

Research involved 22 countries, 18 authorities, 13 private sector firms and six consumer groups on the impact of COVID-19 on food safety and food fraud.

“Of the 18 authorities many of them were impacted in terms of resources and how they could run their processes for food safety, some staff had to look at other activities supporting public health measures in food businesses such as COVID-19 mitigation measures. Quite a few authorities had fewer people available for food safety. The way they responded to that challenge was to focus on essential operations for food safety, on high risk businesses, typically dealing with food of animal origin. People couldn’t visit operations to do a control so they had to use new virtual platforms to interact with food businesses,” said Gorris.

“From the government side, we heard they are confident essential food safety supply chains were kept running without any impact. Some organizations like the European Union allowed regulatory flexibility to focus on high risk operations. We don’t know yet whether there were any illness or food fraud increases.

“Food businesses had to manage implementing new measures for COVID and economic downturns but on the whole there were confident food safety was not implicated and they didn’t have to change their food safety management systems. The new virtual way of working was something they had to get their heads around. They experienced audit and certification online and some of that simplification could remain after the pandemic. From consumers, we heard they were confident in the safety of food but were very concerned in the beginning and not well-informed. There was increased consumer awareness of hygiene as a part of food safety that they can contribute to.”

In a separate statement, EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the safety of food produced and eaten worldwide is the starting point of Europe’s Farm to Fork Strategy.

“Our food policy is built on the highest food safety standards to protect consumers. We have strong legislation and a solid control and traceability system covering all stages of food production, processing and distribution. The EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed has for over 40 years now ensured that urgent alerts for food and feed risks are acted upon immediately,” she said.

“The safety of our food is more important than ever before and I am looking forward to the U.N. Food Systems Summit this September and to give my strongest support for transformative changes in the way the world produces and consumes food.”

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