Safer food, better health

WHO Tanzania Acting Country Representative, Dr. Zabuloni Yoti. PHOTO | CHARLES LUTANDULA-WHO TANZANIA

By Dr Zabulon Yoti

The World Health Orga­nization estimates that 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs). More than US$ 110 billion is lost each year in productivity and medi­cal expenses resulting from unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries.

Globally, children under five years of age bear 40% of the foodborne disease bur­den and 143,000 die every year (2015 data); 149.2 mil­lion children under 5 were stunted (in 2020) and 45.4 million children under 5 were wasted of which 13.6 million were severely wasted (in 2020). In Tan­zania there has been good progress in the reduction of malnutrition especially in children. The prevalence of acute malnutrition had gone down from 4% in 2005 to 3.5% in 2018. However, the prevalence of stunting among children under five years is still off target with a very small reduction from 34% in 2015 to 32% in 2018.

Food-borne diseases are still a challenge in our country. For example, an anthrax outbreak occurred in the Momba District of the Songwe region between December 2018 and January 2019, whereby 81 human cases and four deaths were reported. Sim­ilarly, from 2015 to January 2018, a cholera outbreak led to a total of 33,421 cases including 542 deaths which were reported across all 26 regions of the United Republic of Tanzania. Recently, cholera outbreaks have occurred in Kigoma and Katavi regions with a cumu­lative total of 226 cases. All these and other food-borne outbreaks show the need for developing effective strategies to address root causes includ­ing increasing awareness on food safety, especially at the community level.

In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the 7th June as World Food Safety Day. The resolution notes that “there is no food security without food safety and that in a world where the food supply chain has become more complex, any adverse food safety incident may have global negative effects on public health, trade and the economy. In 2020, the World Health Assembly further adopted a decision on strengthening efforts on food safety to reduce the burden of foodborne dis­eases.

World Food Safety Day (WFSD) aims to draw atten­tion and inspire action to help prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks, contributing to food secu­rity, human health, econom­ic prosperity, agriculture, market access, tourism and sustainable development. This year’s theme, ‘Safer food, better health’, stresses that production and con­sumption of safe food has immediate and long-term benefits for people, the planet and the economy. Recognizing the systemic connections between the health of people, animals, plants, the environment and the economy will help us meet the needs of the future.

Safe food for people reduces hunger and pro­motes food security; leads to increased school atten­dance and performance, increased work atten­dance and earning poten­tial, leads to better health and nutritional status and promotes long-term human development and achievement of SDGs

Different sectors need to work together through the “One Health” approach to improve food safety. Future food systems need to recognize the systemic connections between the health of people, animals, plants, the environment and the economy:

Food safety therefore is a shared responsibil­ity between governments, producers and consum­ers. Everyone has a role to play from farm to table to ensure the food we con­sume is safe and healthy. Through the World Food Safety Day, WHO works to mainstream food safety in the public agenda and reduce the burden of food­borne diseases globally.

The evolving world and food safety and WHO role

Urbanization and changes in consumer habits have increased the number of people buying and eating food prepared in public places. Globaliza­tion has triggered growing consumer demand for a wider variety of foods, resulting in an increas­ingly complex and longer global food chain. Climate change is also predicted to impact food safety.

These challenges put greater responsibility on food producers and han­dlers to ensure food safe­ty. Local incidents can quickly evolve into international emer­gencies due to the speed and range of product distribution.

Governments should make food safety a public health prior­ity, as they play a pivotal role in developing policies and regula­tory frameworks and establish­ing and implementing effective food safety systems. Food han­dlers and consumers at home and restaurants need to under­stand how to safely handle food.

WHO aims to strengthen national food control systems to facilitate global prevention, detection and response to public health threats associated with unsafe food. To do this, WHO supports Member States by pro­viding independent scientific assessments on microbiological and chemical hazards that form the basis for international food standards, guidelines, and rec­ommendations, known as the Codex Alimentarius.

WHO also assess the perfor­mance of national food control systems, helps implement ade­quate infrastructure to manage food safety risks and respond to food safety emergencies through the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFO­SAN).

Moreover, WHO works close­ly with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other international organizations to ensure food safety along the entire food chain from produc­tion to consumption.

When handling food at home and in restaurant WHO advises following five keys to safer food which are keeping it clean; sep­arating raw and cooked; cook­ing thoroughly; keeping food at safe temperatures; and using safe water and raw materials. If you do this you will have lesser chances of falling ill because of unsafe food.

The author is WHO Tanzania Acting Country Representative