Panel debates WHO’s food safety strategy

Officials from Europe and Africa have given their thoughts on a recently adopted international food safety plan that has set targets to reduce foodborne disease.

In a health talk on June 8, Sandra Gallina, Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety at the EU Commission, and Amare Ayalew, of the African Union Commission, spoke about the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy for Food Safety.

World Food Safety Day 2022 came 10 days after adoption of the updated strategy for 2022-2030.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said food should be a source of nourishment and enjoyment but far too often it becomes a source of disease and death.

“It’s also a frequent cause of absenteeism at school and work preventing people from achieving their full potential. Food safety has not received the political attention it deserves. WHO and our partners are working to fix that through political advocacy and technical support for countries to strengthen their national food safety systems,” he said.

“At this year’s World Health Assembly, countries approved the updated WHO Global Strategy for Food Safety, committing for the first time to concrete targets for reducing foodborne diarrhea, strengthening surveillance and improving coordination. Countries also committed to implement the strategy in existing food safety policies and programs and to fund them.”

EU focus on safe and sustainable
Francesco Branca, director in the department of nutrition and food safety at WHO, said: “The last strategy was published about 20 years ago, so you can imagine how big the changes have been in food systems since then. That led us to review the document, which has five priorities. From now on, the work of the Technical Advisory Group will enter a new phase focusing on advocacy resource mobilisation, starting implementation of the actions that will strengthen food safety systems and impact the reduction of foodborne disease.”

Gallina said the food we eat is as important as the air we breathe.

“We are talking about something that is monumentally important for economies. In Europe, we are going through the digital and green transition. We are trying to go towards not just safe food but also sustainable food systems. We need to have a strong One Health approach, we need action at global level, of course efforts at regional, national and local level, but we will not succeed unless we go global,” she said.

The WHO strategy had drawn some lessons from the past, said Gallina.

“There is no doubt our food systems will evolve in the coming decade so we need to promote innovative approaches and use the tools we have in the best ways. The Codex contribution is crucial but it requires continued support from WHO and FAO to ensure these standards are based on robust science, this is a bit of an appeal.

“From the EU experience, member states have the capacity to ensure a high level of food safety and this is fundamental to our internal market and the free flow of products in Europe. I wish we had the same in the world. The strategy recognizes the importance of food safety domestically and for international trade. I am happy to see the establishment of food safety indicators. It is a first step, towards international indicators, we have to start somewhere and this is a huge gap that needs to be filled very quickly. This is how we will measure the effectiveness of our different policies. These indicators will need to be further developed.”

Good timing and Africa’s approach
Ayalew said the strategy has come out at a time when food safety is at the centre of policy dialogues and unprecedented political buy in.

“In Africa, there is a resolve not to be overwhelmed by the grim statistics of unsafe food but to focus on implementing solutions. The strategy provides a mechanism so this momentum in prioritization in food safety does not become a passing cloud but is harnessed to address food safety challenges effectively. The emphasis on emerging challenges is a very welcome development,” he said.

If the strategy document is not implemented it will just be another PDF on computers, warned Ayalew.

“It should be at regional and country level through the development of strategies and action plans to capture local situations under the global umbrella. The Africa Union Commission has launched a strategy on food safety [2022-2036]. This is aligned to WHO’s strategy and focuses on African priorities, we want to emphasize domestic markets and traditional markets which cater for the majority of food in the continent. No single entity can raise the bar effectively to implement the strategy and ensure food safety so collaboration is important. I express my hope that the renewed emphasis on evidence-based approaches would translate into better food safety data generation, use and exchange.”

Don’t take food safety for granted
Speaking at another webinar on World Food Safety Day (WFSD), Tom Heilandt, secretary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, said: “Last week some colleagues in Rome got sick while eating at the same coffee bar and they expressed how upset they were about it, it was a place they had trusted before. Then one colleague said sometimes it happens, food poisoning when working in the field is not that uncommon. So for some food poisoning is an accepted part of life because of their location, this is sad. Food poisoning should be uncommon, everywhere.

“We have achieved so much but we need to do more. We need WFSD to remind us, because in many lucky places safe food is so common that we take it for granted but keeping food safe needs constant vigilance and work. Still, in other places food poisoning is so common it is taken for granted but we need the day to remind us it is not normal and we can and should do a lot to prevent it. It is good business to ensure food safety.”

An event was also held on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with WHO scientist, Simone Moraes Raszl, and Jeffrey LeJeune, FAO food safety officer, discussing facts about food safety and debunking popular myths, including whether to eat food dropped on the floor, on June 6.

LeJeune said: “Every day is a food safety day, we need to make sure that food is safe each day. We want to make sure that food does not cause any illness. It has health, and trade implications. Everyone involved at the various stages has a responsibility to keep food safe.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)