This year, World Health Day on April 7th is dedicated to improving food safety from the farm to the plate. This is a timely reminder that food safety is a global public health issue: Foodborne disease causes suffering, death, reduced productivity, loss of wages, decreased trade competitiveness and access to markets and ultimately exacerbate poverty.
Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is the root cause of more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancers. Foodborne and waterborne diseases kill an estimated 1.5 million people annually, including many children under the age of 5.
Yet food safety is often neglected to the point that food security and food safety are sometimes perceived to be at odds with one another. And nothing could be farther from the truth, because having access to safe food is a prerequisite for food security. What is the point of having a full stomach if you get sick afterwards—sometimes even fatally—especially if it was preventable in the first place?
The Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) was formed in recognition that food safety outbreaks have substantial public health implications as well as potentially devastating market consequences as recent incidents have shown. In an increasingly interconnected food supply chain, food safety hazards affect the health of people and economies, while negatively impacting the lives and livelihoods of poor people.
The realities of the global marketplace present serious challenges to the safety of the food trade in countries around the world. New threats to food safety are constantly emerging. Changes in food production, distribution and consumption; changes to weather patterns and the environment; new and emerging bacteria and toxins; antimicrobial resistance—all can pose risks to food systems.
No single organization can address food safety alone. Public-private partnerships such as the GFSP bring together national governments, industry, consumer advocacy groups, civil society and academia for the purpose of working collaboratively to strengthen food safety systems in middle income and developing countries, maximize scarce resources and scale up innovative solutions. It is in this context that partnerships are critical for achieving lasting change and promoting sustainability.
In many developing countries that export agricultural products, it is often the external market that drives the development of food standards and safety systems. Public opinion often does not prioritize food safety issues, which may not be recognized as a domestic public health problem. This is why a public awareness campaign on this topic is very timely. It is only through a concerted effort that we can truly improve food safety.
As the population increases and ever more people gravitate towards urban areas, the demand for food, particularly processed food and animal proteins, will continue to rise. This means that the global food supply chain will have to be more efficient than ever as countries rely increasingly on food trade. Strengthening food safety systems entails identifying gaps and vulnerabilities in the global food supply chain by improving competencies, protocols, risk-based management systems, and implementation capacity. This is critical for promoting public health and economic growth in developing countries when it comes to locally produced food as well as imports and exports.
Food safety cannot be achieved cheaply. Laboratory tests on food products for pesticides or veterinary drug residues, for instance, require a high level of technical skills, modern laboratory equipment, supplies and reagents, and regular updating on new testing methods. This is one example where public private partnerships are highly effective and leverage each other’s strengths for the common good.
Waters Corporation, one of our private sector partners, for example, is making their laboratory facilities in China available to train government food analysts. Mars Inc. and Nestle are also contributing to these training efforts, alongside the US Department of Agriculture, University of Maryland/JIFSAN and others. Academia can lead with highly skilled technical expertise, while educated consumers can hold both governments and private sector accountable by demanding safe food.
So yes, as the World Health Organization says, food safety is a shared responsibility. Establishing strong partnerships such as the GFSP is the way forward, but as one of our online discussion participants said last week during a dialogue on improving food safety, education and training are also at the heart of this issue. Food is a pre-requisite for life. Knowing how safe our food is can save lives. Food safety for all is an ideal worth pursuing in our lifetime.
Don’t forget to tweet about the importance of food safety on World Health Day using the following hash tags: #SafeFood #SocialGood. You too have a role to play in promoting food safety.