Food safety on the menu at World Conference

According to UN estimates, unsafe food kills more than 400,000 people each year.
(from L to R) Meshak Malo, Assistant to the Director General of FAO, Abebe Haile Gabriel, Assitant Director General of FAO in Africa, Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director of FAO, Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General, Fatouma Seid, FAO representative in Ethiopia and two members of the MFA of Ethiopia pose during the first international food and safety joint conference between Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), World Health Organisation and African Union in Addis Ababa, on 11 February 2019. (Photo by Eduardo Soteras / AFP)

Food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic chemicals is a mounting health hazard and a crippling economic burden. This formed the crux of the discussion at the global conference on food safety held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Monday.

It was a two-day forum geared towards bringing together government officials and health experts from 125 countries to combat the peril of unsafe food. The conference was attended by ministers and deputy ministers from 20 countries.

According to UN estimates, unsafe food kills more than 400,000 people each year. Also, of the 600 million people who fall sick from unsafe food, around 420,000 die. Children under five suffer most, comprising 40 percent of those who fall ill.

“Today, the world produces enough food for everyone,” Jose Graziano Da Silva, director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said at the opening of the conference on Monday.

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But much of this food “is not safe”, he added.

“We estimate that each year, nearly one person in 10 falls sick after eating contaminated food,” said Kazuaki Miyagishima, who heads the World Health Organization (WHO) food security department.

According to the WHO, contaminated food is to blame for more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancers — and the economic impact is huge but often overlooked.

The FAO estimates the cost for low and middle-income countries to be in the range of $95 billion (83.5 billion euros) per year.

All-round approach

For countries facing drought or famine, the challenge is preventing the population from using water contaminated by cholera, or eating food unsuitable for consumption.

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For countries trying to better respect international norms and export certain food products, Miyagishima warned of a “situation where exported food is of a better quality than products destined for the local market”.

Miyagishima said a multi-pronged approach was needed.

This includes stronger laws, better training and equipment and beefing up health systems to detect potential risks and swap information countries, he said

The risks are very diverse, ranging from bacteria such as salmonella or listeria, to chemicals such as cancer-causing heavy metals and organic pollutants.

In Europe, Miyagishima said there was a need for faster exchange of information between health authorities, recalling the 2017 contamination of eggs in the Netherlands, which were distributed to numerous countries

WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argues that “food safety is linked to many sustainable development goals”.

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This conference came at a time of swelling controversy over the use of chemical products in agriculture, including the controversial weed-killer Roundup.

The UN in December announced the creation of a World Food Safety Day on June 7.

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