How often do we ask ourselves if the food we are eating is safe? Do we know if it is free of bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals, other contaminants, additives and adulterants which can cause over 200 diseases ranging from diarrhoea to cancer? Every year, diarrhoea caused by contaminated food and water kills 2.2 million people, including 1.9 million children, globally. Unsafe food and water kills an estimated 7, 00,000 children in WHO's South-east Asia region every year. Access to safe food remains a challenge in the Region. Whether as individuals, families, farmers, contributors to and handlers of the food chain or policy makers, we need to make food safety our priority.
Food safety is critical for public health as foodborne diseases affect people's health and well-being. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, the elderly and the sick. Foodborne diseases impede socio-economic development by straining health care systems and adversely impacting national economies, tourism and trade. Since food passes through multiple hands from the farm to reach our plates, ensuring food safety requires multisectoral collaboration. The approach needs to be preventive - to improve food safety and quality through application of good farming practices by using agro chemicals or veterinary drugs only in the prescribed amount. Good storage, transportation, retail and restaurant practices are equally important to make food safe.
Street foods are emerging as an important source of food for a large proportion of the population in urban and peri-urban settings. Street food as a source of foodborne diseases therefore assumes public health significance.
Also, new threats to food safety are constantly emerging - the impact of climate change on food production, distribution and consumption; emerging biological and environmental contamination of the food chain, new technologies, new and emerging pathogens; antimicrobial resistance - all pose challenges to the safety of our food. Countries need to have a comprehensive food safety policy, legislation and national food safety programmes encompassing all the sectors and aspects for food safety.
Though most countries in the region have food safety policies, enforcement remains a challenge. Food quality and safety standards are usually strictly followed for exportable food commodities, but not always enforced for food destined for the domestic market. Food safety and quality should be ensured through stringent control and inspection mechanisms for export as well as the domestic market. Adulteration of food is another problem as informal food production and distribution systems are deeply entrenched at the community level in the region. Contamination of mustard oil with argemone oil in 1998 and contamination of imported milk and infant formula with melamine in 2008, are among the few events that raised food safety concerns among consumers and policy makers in the Region and globally.
The most pertinent of all the measures is creating awareness among individuals to ensure that their food is safe. In this context, WHO has been promoting 'five keys' to food safety - maintain cleanliness, separate raw and cooked food, cook thoroughly, keep food at correct temperature and use safe water and raw materials.
As food supply becomes increasingly globalized, there is an urgent need to strengthen food safety systems in and between all countries. WHO is supporting establishment of a network for food safety authorities in partnership with countries to promote the exchange of food safety information and improve collaboration among food safety authorities at national and international levels.
WHO is also helping countries prevent, detect and respond to foodborne disease outbreaks using the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice covering all the main foods and processes.
In addition, WHO is advocating for food safety to be adequately incorporated in national disaster-management programmes and emergencies. Access to safe water and quality food is a major problem during flooding, earthquakes and other natural disasters. There is a likelihood of food in the affected areas getting contaminated and causing outbreaks of food-borne disease.
As part of its Regional Food Safety Strategy, WHO is assisting countries in the Region to initiate, develop and sustain multisectoral approaches and measures for promotion of food safety among all population groups. Some countries have taken novel and notable initiatives such as the mobile food courts in Bangladesh, the establishment of a Food Standard and Safety Authority in India, and certification of street food vendors with a 'Clean Food, Good Taste' logo in Thailand.
This year's World Health Day theme focuses on food safety. Food safety must be an essential component of national health, food, agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, water, sanitation and environment-related programmes. Food safety is a shared responsibility. Let us work together to make our food safe and to contribute to better health of people.
Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh is Regional Director, World Health Organization South-east Asia region