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Friday, June 7 is the first World Food Safety Day

Image of Dr Renata Clarke

The UN General Assembly declared June 7, 2019 as the first World Food Safety Day, which is a partnership between the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).With raising public awareness as one of its main objectives, World Food Safety Day provokes us to reflect our individual responsibilities in keeping food safe as well as to reflect on the roles and responsibilities of food businesses and of national institutions.

According to Dr Renata Clarke, FAO’s Sub-regional Coordinator, “most people spend very little time thinking about food safety unless there is a crisis or a scandal of some sort. Yet, apart from the air that we breathe and the water we drink, there is nothing of more direct and routine importance to each of us every day”.She added that WHO estimated that the public health burden of food borne illness is of the same order of magnitude as the burden of malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. Therefore, the WHO report was intended as a “call to action” for governments to invest more in making food supplies safe, and that the call for a World Food Safety Day emerged out of this growing awareness of the magnitude of the problem of unsafe food.

Image of Dr Renata Clarke
Dr Renata Clarke

Dr Clarke added that the short-term effects of illness due to foodborne pathogenic bacteria and viruses can be devastating, while some long-term consequences of food borne infections such as irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis, chronic kidney disease and neurological disorders.She added that chemical contamination of foods is also of great concern, for example, aflatoxin, the most potent cancer-causing agent known, is a common contaminant in such foods as corn and peanuts if the products are poorly handled and stored. Dr Clarke further indicated that, “climate change is having an impact on the occurrence of these chemical and microbiological contaminants, while other environmental contaminants such as heavy metals (e.g. mercury and lead) and persistent organic pollutants from industrial activity can also find their way into the food chain negatively affecting the health of consumers”.

Meanwhile, WHO conservatively estimates 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, which is a shocking, and sobering fact.

Accordingly to Dr Karen Polson-Edwards, Advisor, Climate and Environmental Determinants of Health
PAHO/WHO Office for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, “diseases caused by food contaminated with toxic chemicals or microorganisms (bacteria, parasites) are a serious cause of health-related problems globally. She stressed that in the Caribbean, thousands of persons are affected by food-borne illnesses due to contamination of food and unsafe food handling practices, therefore, food safety is of utmost importance to us. “The most common agent which causes food-borne disease (FBD) outbreaks in the Caribbean is norovirus which is highly contagious and can affect everyone. The symptoms of FBDs are diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, which are sometimes accompanied by other symptoms such as fever and headaches, stated Dr. Polson-Edwards.

The World Bank issued a report earlier this year which estimates that unsafe food costs lower and middle income countries over 100 billion USD annually mainly due to lost productivity. Therefore, inadequate investment in food safety is not just a problem for public health. It is a major economic issue.

Mishandling of food within the home causes a large proportion of food borne illness outbreaks, with some common practices including the length of time cooked food is kept outside which should not be longer than two hours, using the same cutting board to prepare fresh meats and vegetables, and defrosting meat outside instead of inside the fridge.It is important that consumers protect themselves and their families at home and by choosing safe food vendors and restaurants that follow good hygiene practices.

It is noted that for many countries in the Caribbean, the majority of the food supply is imported. Therefore, consumers largely have to rely on an “invisible” system of controls by food producers and by governments that are required to keep this food safe. Public confidence may be fragile if the responsible national authorities do not communicate consistently and effectively about the programmes that are in place to keep their food safe, and that very confidence can be shattered in the event of a food safety incident or breach. When and should this occur, everyone loses – consumers feel vulnerable, national authorities lose credibility and businesses lose money.

Therefore, there is a need for transparent information sharing, effective, and interactive communication between the public and national authorities. Moreover, since food systems are not static, there is also a need for ongoing vigilance to keep raising the bar on food safety.

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