WHO chiefs discuss local food safety issues

Regional World Health Organization (WHO) leaders used World Food Safety Day to highlight topics important in their countries.

Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said traditional markets are a key part of the food system.

“They play an important economic, cultural and social role in the Asia Pacific region and are a source of livelihood for millions of people in both urban and rural areas. Healthy and safe traditional food markets can be achieved by implementing measures based on risks identified in the market. When managed properly they provide access to safe, healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and they play a role in promoting health and preventing diseases, especially among vulnerable groups,” he said.

When managed improperly, food markets can be unsafe environments and even pose health risks related to food safety and zoonoses threats.

“Whether you’re a consumer or work in a food market there are simple measures you can take to mitigate the risks in traditional food markets. Maintaining good personal hygiene habits, avoid mixing raw and ready-to-eat foods, check if foods are safe and suitable for consumption before eating them and minimize contact with live animals in markets and follow local public health measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases,” he said.

In the Western Pacific region, more than 125 million people fall ill and 50,000 die annually from unsafe food.

“Many food safety issues extend beyond the health sector and require a multi-sectoral approach. Local actions, sometimes based on novel solutions, will help us to achieve this. Concerted efforts on food safety will help countries mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic and boost their resilience in the long term by facilitating and accelerating food and agricultural trade, helping to prevent the next zoonotic pandemic and transforming food systems. Guaranteeing food safety for all is a shared responsibility which involves the participation of many actors from different sectors including consumers,” said Kasai.  

Efforts in South-East Asia
Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO South-East Asia, said efforts had been made to increase access to safe and healthy food, in line with the Framework for Action on Food Safety.

“In all countries of the region, national Codex committees continue to facilitate multi-sectoral action to strengthen food safety. Five of the region’s 11 member states have begun implementing group or individual Codex Trust Fund projects, with more set to follow. Six – Bhutan, Indonesia, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste – have already developed national food safety plans that are aligned with the Regional Framework for Action and the Global Food Safety Strategy,” she said.

“In 2021, WHO conducted a series of food safety-focused workshops and meetings in the region, including on risk mitigation in traditional food markets, advancing implementation of the Framework for Action, addressing AMR as a food safety issue, and mitigating the impacts of COVID-19.”

The WHO South-East Asia region accounts for 150 million illnesses and 175,000 deaths per year from unsafe food.

Singh said all stakeholders must act and momentum was strong, but people must push harder and faster.

“First, policymakers can initiate and/or support measures to strengthen national food safety systems, with a focus on enhancing legal frameworks and compliance. Second, food businesses can better engage employees, suppliers and other stakeholders to nurture and develop a culture of food safety. Specific focus should be put on achieving full compliance with international food standards,” she said.

“Third, educational institutions and workplaces can intensify efforts to promote safe food handling and engage with and involve families in food safety activities. Fourth, consumers should practice safe food handling at home, following WHO’s Five Keys to Safer Food: keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe and raw materials.

“At last year’s UN Food Systems Summit, countries from the region and across the world committed to transform food systems, ensuring such systems are not only resilient, inclusive and sustainable, but also healthy and safe. WHO is committed to achieving that outcome, which will in turn reduce the disproportionate impact of foodborne illness on infants and young children, the elderly and sick, and diminish wider socioeconomic effects.”

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