As an assistant director-general at the World Health Organization, I travel a lot. And as I travel, I am constantly amazed at what foods are available virtually anywhere. I can pick up my favorite noodles dish, or falafel, or a pizza in pretty well all corners of the globe. But I also know that each ingredient of these foods can have been produced and transported from a different country, having crossed several borders to arrive on my plate. This is a result of globalization.
While I am happy to have such choices, I want to assume that what I am eating is safe. This is likely true, but unfortunately is not a given. The vast movement of food, which lets you eat what you want, where you want, also means there is a broad range of factors that can ensure or undermine the safety of what you eat.
Foodborne diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people annually. This is large but it often takes a highly publicized event, such as Europe’s 1990s mad cow disease outbreak or China’s more recent issue with contaminated infant formula, to create public awareness about food safety.
The problem is that similar to so many headline-grabbing topics, interest in food safety dies down as swiftly as it flares up — forgotten until the next big emergency.
Creating more sustained awareness is one of the keys to better public health. Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death in children under 5 years, and much of this is preventable. This is one reason why World Health Day this year is focused on food safety.
The aim of this day is to highlight the growing complexity of today’s food supply chain, and the need to ensure that safety is built into every part of the chain. Today’s reality is that an error by a food producer in one country can seriously affect the health of consumers on the other side of the planet. But the greater complexity of the food chain makes it harder to trace and recall contaminated products.
What is needed? Firstly, it is critical for people working in different sectors, especially health, agriculture, trade, tourism and environment, to be aware of the complexity and to position their work to fit together. Another critical element is the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which was established by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO over 50 years ago to develop international food standards and guidelines to protect the health of consumers.
Policymakers must develop strong policies aligned across all sectors to contribute toward a safe and healthy diet for all. For instance, the WHO European Action Plan on Food and Nutrition Policy 2007-2012 has been instrumental in highlighting important areas for improvement in food safety measures. However, now that we live in a world where a pizza in Italy could be made from ingredients from several countries around the world, a more globally consistent set of policies is needed.
A multisector approach is essential. WHO has long collaborated on several joint activities with FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health to ensure food is safe at all stages of the food chain. This need for multisector cooperation is also essential at the country level where different ministries and government offices have significant roles related to food and health.
Last November, we co-hosted with FAO the second International Conference on Nutrition in Italy. Representatives from both the health and agriculture sectors committed to work together to make strengthening food systems a global priority. The Rome Declaration — which was adopted by more than 170 governments, 150 representatives from civil society and nearly 100 from the business community — will guide us in our further efforts. The Milano Food Expo “Feed the Planet — Energy for Life,” which starts in May, will amplify this point. In October, WHO will launch a series of scientific data reports that, for the first time, will begin to comprehensively address the full extent of the health impacts of foodborne diseases.
World Health Day on April 7 is a reminder that it’s time to take food safety much more seriously. As part of our global strategy to decrease the burden of foodborne diseases, WHO is promoting the “Five Keys to Safer Food” — keep clean, separate raw and cooked food, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials — that are relevant no matter where you are. A robust set of guidance elaborating the Five Keys has been translated into 87 languages and explains the basic principles that every person should know. You can find them on the WHO website.
So enjoy the unprecedented opportunities available today to eat what you want, where you want. But please also raise your voice that as a consumer, you expect all necessary steps be taken to make sure your food is safe.
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