Experts in the WHO’s European Region have considered food safety during a meeting on the out-of-home (OOH) food sector.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional office for Europe organized an event in June with several member states to assess and develop policy guidance for the sector which includes takeaway cafés, restaurants and food delivery services.

At the virtual meeting, organized by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases and Public Health England, it was clear that OOH food is gaining popularity and the largely unregulated market is growing rapidly. Without regulation, this could pose a threat to consumer health, said experts.

Although the focus of debates was on nutritional content of the food sold, experts said the expanding OOH sector brings increasing risks of food contamination and this calls for enhanced attention on the management of food safety.

During the discussions, countries highlighted a lack of quality data. This is needed to create guidance on issues such as making healthier options readily available, regulating the digital environment including meal delivery apps, and reducing food contamination risks.

“Our current level of understanding is inadequate to develop relevant policies. WHO Europe will continue to facilitate this dialogue among member states and other stakeholders to advance the agenda in this area,” said Kremlin Wickramasinghe, acting head of the NCD Office.

Growing risk
The OOH sector includes meal delivery apps, which have increased their market share, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With use of such apps rising, the risk of ready-to-eat food being subject to unsafe temperatures, cross-contamination, and exposure to microbiological, chemical and physical hazards also increases.

In France, nearly 10 billion meals consumed in 2018 were from OOH outlets. In Spain, more than a third of expenditures on food was in this sector.

A better understanding of the OOH food category in the region is the first step toward strategies to create a region-wide evidence base on which to assess the sector and develop policy.

Dr. Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist for Public Health England, said: “Before COVID-19, most people were regularly eating out, and over the past year due to restrictions, we’ve seen the takeaway delivery market booming. There is limited international policy in this space, so working together to tackle data quality challenges and sharing policy innovation are key if we are going to shift the dial.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)