Monitoring compliance with food safety and quality regulations should begin at the primary production level, with strong partnerships forged between inspection officials and primary producers to identify potential risks and find ways to mitigate them.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh
Regional Director, South-East Asia office, World Health Organisation
UNSAFE food causes a staggering range of diseases, from diarrhoea to cancer and hepatitis. Food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals is a major threat to public health, both globally and in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) South-East Asia region. Every year, an estimated 4.2 lakh people die worldwide due to food-borne diseases, with the region accounting for a disproportionate share — about 1.75 lakh.
Tackling the problem is more important than ever before. The globalised nature of modern food chains, alongside emerging hazards such as anti-microbial resistance and climate change, makes the threat of food-borne diseases increasingly acute. Even as food-borne diseases can harm public health at the national and international levels, their occurrence can also compromise development, trade, nutrition and food security. Informal food production at the community level poses an ongoing challenge, with basic hygiene, adulteration and falsification being the key concerns.
Countries in the WHO region, which includes India, Bangladesh and Nepal, have been active in addressing the issue. Since 2015, seven of the region’s 11 nations have conducted in-depth assessment of their food-borne disease surveillance and response capacity. All have strengthened their national codex structure — the standards and guidelines created by the Codex Alimentarius Commission to promote food safety and protect consumers, especially in the context of international trade. With the support of the WHO and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), simulation exercises have been carried out to test region-wide coordination and communication, with the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) anchoring the proceedings.
As a show of commitment, more than 30 representatives from nine of the region’s countries have attended (or will attend) WHO-supported conferences on the future of food safety in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) in February and Geneva (Switzerland) in April. Each event will have a significant impact on a range of food safety-related issues (both globally and in the region), from dealing with present challenges to aligning food safety strategies across sectors and borders.
Immediate action is both possible and necessary. As outlined in the Region’s Flagship Priorities and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, respectively, emergency preparedness must be scaled up and safe and healthy food made accessible to all. To achieve both, several high-impact interventions should be made.
First, food safety management and regulation frameworks should be strengthened. To do this, multi-sectoral action that involves all stakeholders — from food business operators, both formal and informal, to consumers, academics, scientists and the media — is crucial. By actively engaging each of these groups, food safety authorities have the best chance of achieving the integrated management of food supply chains and ensuring any weaknesses are addressed as a matter of priority. Importantly, all stakeholders must know their responsibilities and the standards and regulations to which they are accountable.
Second, a risk-based approach to monitoring food safety should be developed and implemented in each of the region’s countries. To that end, monitoring compliance with food safety and quality regulations should begin at the primary production level, with strong partnerships forged between inspection officials and primary producers to identify potential risks and find ways to mitigate them. This collaborative approach, which should begin at the primary producer and end at the point of sale, is the best way to enhance buy-in among all stakeholders. It is also the best way to ensure compliance.
Third, food-borne disease surveillance should be strengthened across the region. The first step towards securing food safety is knowing when, where, why and how food-borne hazards and resulting illnesses occur. To make that happen, member States in the region should fully implement the strategies outlined in the WHO’s manual on strengthening the surveillance of and response to food-borne diseases. That includes the integrated surveillance of anti-microbial resistance in food-borne bacteria. In addition, there is strong potential to increase engagement with the International Network of Food Safety Authorities (INFOSAN) via its communication platforms, as well as to enhance coordination between national INFOSAN and IHR focal points.
And fourth, investing in all aspects of food safety should be better prioritised. Advocacy is crucial to ensure high-level leaders understand that investing in food safety protects and promotes public health as well as sustainable development more broadly. This is especially the case as rapid changes in food production techniques occur, new technologies are adopted, and anti-microbial resistance and climate change emerge as significant hazards. Substantial, well-thought-out investments (for example in developing food safety legislation and policy, enhancing risk-based inspections and compliance enforcement, or improving laboratory services), are crucial to strengthening and accelerating region-wide progress.
At the regional and global levels, WHO, FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health have established a tripartite coordination mechanism to support food safety activities. WHO will continue to help the region’s member States reduce food-related illness and death and diminish the risk of national and transnational food-borne disease outbreaks. Like the process of producing food itself, securing food safety is both a science and an art. Each must be mastered, and safe and healthy food made accessible to all, all the time.