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Ideas & Debate

Why food safety must be a public health priority

food safety
Developing nations should make food safety a public health priority. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health. Food safety is the presence of acceptable levels, of hazards in food that may harm the health of consumers. Food borne hazards can be microbiological, chemical or physical in nature and are often invisible to the plain eye. Food safety has a critical role in assuring that food stays safe at every stage of the food chain from production to harvest, processing, storage, distribution, all the way to preparation and consumption. Its safety, however, has become a major concern to the food industry as well as a major contributor to a myriad of health problems world over.

Globalisation has triggered growing consumer demand for a wider variety of foods, resulting in an increasingly complex and longer global food chain. As the world’s population grows, the intensification and industrialization of agriculture and animal production to meet increasing demand for food creates both opportunities and challenges for food safety.

Climate change is also predicted to impact food safety, where temperature changes modify food safety risks associated with food production, storage and distribution.

Of most concern for health are naturally occurring toxins and environmental pollutants including mycotoxins, marine biotoxins, cyanogenic glycosides and poisonous mushrooms toxins; persistent organic pollutants from industrial processes and waste incineration; and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury.

Unsafe food causes more than 200 diseases while chemical contamination can lead to acute poisoning or long-term diseases, such as cancer, disability and death. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition across all age groups. An estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die annually with children accounting for 40 percent of these illnesses and deaths.

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Foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems, and harming national economies, tourism and trade. Despite extensive investment in training of food handling personnel, food-borne diseases remain a contentious problem to both developed and developing nations.

Challenges include: poor handling of food, conniving regulatory and safety agencies, vested interests and greedy traders out to make quick money. Food unsafety is further aggravated by uncoordinated operations between various agencies, weak regulatory operations, toothless inspection teams and corruption at the expense of good health.

As such, contaminated sugar, poor quality cooking oil, aflatoxin infested maize, low standard juices, chemical and substances in milk, meat, bananas and vegetables and unregulated eateries are the most commonly reported food safety concerns locally.

Consumers around the world have a right to expect that the foods they purchase and consume are safe and of high quality as a foundation to nutritious diet. In addition to safeguarding the well-being of consumers, food safety is also crucial to enable agricultural producers gain access to markets for economic development and poverty alleviation.

Developing nations should therefore make food safety a public health priority through development of policies and regulatory frameworks; establishing and implementing effective food safety systems along the whole food chain.

Specific measures for policy makers include; building and maintaining adequate food systems and infrastructures such as laboratories to respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain, including during emergencies; fostering multi-sectoral collaboration among public health, animal health, agriculture, trade, standards, tax and other sectors for better communication and joint action; integrating food safety into broader food policies and programmes; thinking globally and acting locally for production of internationally acceptable food; providing scientific assessments as per the Codex Alimentarius, to ensure food is safe wherever it originates; assessing the safety of new technologies used in food production including genetic modification and nanotechnology; promoting systematic disease prevention and awareness programmes; and advocating for food safety as an important component of health security; and integrating food safety into national policies and programmes in line with the International Health Regulations (IHR - 2005).

At an individual level, consumers can do the following: know the food they use and make informed choices; handle and prepare food safely, practicing the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food at home and markets; grow fruits and vegetables using the WHO Five Keys to Growing Safer Fruits and Vegetables to decrease microbial contamination and; storing, chilling and heating food correctly with regards to temperature, environment and equipment; implementing effective pest control; and comprehending food allergies, food poisoning and food intolerance.

The writer is a public health specialist based in Nairobi.

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