Two million children die each year from contaminated food and water in developing countries, the WHO chief said on Monday, urging them to upgrade rapidly the safety and quality of their food products, Reuters reports. The appeal came from Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organisation and Hartwig de Haen, assistant director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, who also backed further research on genetically modified foods (GM). They were addressing the opening of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint WHO-FAO body which sets standards for the international food trade sector valued at $400 billion annually.The week-long talks attended by most of the 165 member countries who adhere to the voluntary code follow a string of food safety alerts which have eroded global consumer confidence. De Haen said: "Concern over BSE (mad cow disease), the dioxin crisis in 1999, numerous outbreaks of food-borne illnesses due to microbiological contamination of foods and the appearance in human food of a genetically modified maize approved only for animal feeding has strongly influenced public opinion." Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister and medical doctor, told the talks: "We need to improve the systems we use to ensure food safety and re-establish consumer confidence, we must reassess them all the way from the farm to the table." Delegates will discuss consumer issues including food derived from biotechnology, labelling of organic and genetically modified food, food additives and contaminants such as cadmium in cereals and aflotoxin in milk. "Governments across the globe are increasingly finding themselves urgently in need of upgrading their domestic food safety systems. In many developing countries, however, there is often no comprehensive food safety system in place to restructure in the first place," Brundtland declared. The WHO chief called for helping poor countries to adopt current food-safety systems."This is a win-win situation. Industrial countries will get better reassurances that food imports are safe, while developing countries will improve both domestic food production standards and be able to expand their export markets." De Haen said a Codex working group had been studying new measures that would provide a "continuous chain of documentation" on the origin and nature of each commodity and ingredient. However, the so-called "traceability" proposal for tracing all foods and food components from the origin to the point of final consumption would also introduce further costs, he added. De Haen and Brundtland agreed more research was needed into genetically modified foods. Promoters say the new technology contributes to better crop yields and lower production costs, while critics fear the health and environmental consequences. The WHO chief called for developing global standards for "pre-market approval systems" to ensure GM food was evaluated before coming onto the market. "Public health can benefit enormously from biotechnology's potential to increase the nutrient content of foods, decrease their allergenicity, and improve the efficiency of food production," Brundtland said."On the other hand, the potential negative effects on human health of the consumption of food produced through genetic modification must be carefully examined," she added.