COLUMN – Food safety is a must!

Health Today-blockA good meal is a delight, but we hardly ever spare a thought on whether our food is safe as we settle down to enjoy the melting pot of flavours. And, we can easily become sick if our food has in it harmful chemicals or germs.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), food safety should not be taken lightly; and it’s everybody’s business, particularly now that unsafe food is linked to the deaths of an estimated two million people annually.

The issue took centre stage on Tuesday this week as countries across the globe observed World Health Day under the theme From Farm To Plate, Make Food Safe.

safe food

New WHO data revealed that food-borne illnesses underscored the global threats posed by unsafe foods, and the need for coordinated, action across the entire food supply chain.

WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan.
WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan.

“Food production has been industrialized and its trade and distribution have been globalized,” says WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan. “These changes introduce multiple new opportunities for food to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals.”

Food-borne illness is often referred to as food poisoning. Examples of unsafe food include undercooked meats, fruits and vegetables contaminated by faeces, and seafood containing marine biotoxins. WHO said these could cause more than 200 diseases –– ranging from diarrhoea to cancer.

Symptoms of food-borne infections include vomiting, fever, diarrhoea, headache and stomach ache. While anyone can get sick from food that is poorly handled, children and the elderly are often more susceptible to food-borne illnesses.

Dr Chan warned: “A local food safety problem can rapidly become an international emergency. Investigation of an outbreak of food-borne disease is vastly more complicated when a single plate or package of food contains ingredients from multiple countries.”

Preliminary findings from a broad analysis of the global burden of food-borne diseases conducted by WHO’s Food-Borne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG), show that there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different food-borne enteric diseases and 351,000 associated deaths.

The enteric disease agents responsible for most deaths were Salmonella Typhi (52,000 deaths), enteropathogenic E. coli (37,000) and norovirus (35,000).

The full report, which is expected to be released in October, also reveals that the African region recorded the highest disease burden for enteric food-borne disease, followed by South-East Asia; where over 40 per cent of people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children under five years.

WHO further warned that unsafe food also posed major economic risks, especially in a globalized world.

It cited Germany’s 2011 E.coli outbreak which reportedly caused US$1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries and US$236 million in emergency aid payments to 22 European Union member states.

In Barbados, comprehensive protocols are in place to safeguard against food-borne illnesses, and, according to general practitioner Dr Colin Alert, that’s largely why the issue of food safety is not a major concern at this time when compared to other health issues.

Dr Colin Alert, family physician.
Dr Colin Alert, family physician.

“It seems that our health inspectors, though limited in number when compared to the number of commercial venues they have to inspect, still do a good job in reducing the numbers of any significant episodes of food-borne illnesses, he told Health Today.

Dr Alert was however quick to point out that as a tourist destination, Barbados could not afford to become complacent.

“We need to maintain our standards, particularly in areas where tourists are likely to visit. Since we have a growing number of ‘street-food’ vendors, who work in ‘suboptimal conditions’ as far as hygiene/food safety is concerned, the health inspectors must continue working to keep the incidence of food-borne illnesses as low as possible to protect the health of the local population as well.”

WHO called on countries to take strong action to prevent major outbreaks.

Director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses, Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, lamented that “it often takes a crisis for the collective consciousness on food safety to be stirred and any serious response to be taken”.

“The impacts on public health and economies can be great. A sustainable response, therefore, is needed that ensures standards, checks and networks are in place to protect against food safety risks,” he added.

WHO recommends the development of robust food safety systems that drive government and public action to safeguard against chemical or microbial contamination food.

It urged consumers to practise safe hygiene, by reading labels when buying and preparing food, and to learn the correct methods of preparing specific foods that might be hazardous (like raw chicken).

Food should be washed thoroughly.
Food should be washed thoroughly.

At home, Dr Alert also emphasized that the public must act responsibly.

“Support our public health inspectorate, whose job continues to expand while their resources are stagnant. We have heard of major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses on some of the large cruise liners that sail in Caribbean waters, causing actual and financial embarrassment to the owners of these cruise liners.

“Any major outbreak involving guests to our shores can potentially have major financial consequences, particularly as our health care services are stretched wafer-thin.”

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