The paper, due to be delivered at the WHO’s executive meeting later this month, has declared that recent scandals involving chemicals such as melamine and dioxins, as well as microbial contaminations of food products with traditional or new pathogens highlight the world-wide nature of the problem.
It outlines food and water-borne diarrhoeal illnesses present a “growing public health problem” that claim 2.2m lives annually – with 1.9m of these children. The health body said that many communicable diseases – including emerging zoonoses – are transmitted through food. It also cautions that many other diseases such as cancers are linked with chemicals and toxins in the food supply.
“The spread of pathogens and contaminants across national borders means that foodborne diseases now threaten global public health security,” said the report.
Incidences of foodborne diseases are likely to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change due to the “faster growth rates of micro-organisms in food and water at higher temperatures, potentially resulting in higher levels of toxins or pathogens in food”, said the WHO secretariat. The increased hazard posed by newly emerging zoonoses could be particularly acute, it added.
Moves towards improving food production and distribution will only benefit those lacking food security and/or suffering from malnutrition if they are accompanied by progress in the safety and quality of food, said the authors. Not only are foodborne illnesses a danger to human health but they also pose a threat to economic growth in developing countries.
The report underlines that while “many or most human infectious diseases” in recent decades have come from animals, the transmission of these infections has “often been through food and food preparation”. Acute respiratory syndrome, BSE and highly pathogenic avian influenza are three major examples cited.
The report emphasises that as foodborne diseases recognise no national boundaries, efforts to combat them must be co-ordinated across governments and sectors – since risks to food safety may originate in any link in the food production chain – including the environment, animal feed, production and retailing, preparation practices and the consumer’s kitchen.
“A prerequisite for food safety will be efficient multi-sectoral collaboration between all relevant partners at the international and national levels, with systematic mainstreaming of food safety into food systems and nutrition policies and interventions,” said the paper.
International agreements on food safety management that include general scientific principles and collaboration across sectors are vital. Such an approach in surveillance systems could prevent or facilitate early detection of diseases and may also “significantly reduce their incidence in the medium to long-term”, predicted the WHO.
The body outlined a raft of initiatives and groups it has set up to help realise these goals – including the International Food Safety Authorities Network and the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group.
Sound scientific risk assessment must form the basis of policy formation to manage food safety and protect consumers, the body concluded. It added it was investing in new ways of “ensuring international provision of scientific advice, avoiding the waste of resources caused by repetitive assessments in countries or regions”.