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FAO/WHO urge greater collaboration over food safety problems

by Kanaga Raja

Geneva, 2 July 2001 - The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have urged countries to apply and enforce international food safety and quality standards to tackle the problems of health and trade in food. In order to achieve this, both the agencies add, more international collaboration and a consolidated strategy is needed.

This message was put forth by WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland and FAO Assistant Director-General Hartwig de Haen during a meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in Geneva (2-7 July).

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the highest international body on food quality and safety standards, and is a subsidiary body of the FAO and the WHO.  It currently has 165 member countries.

In her opening speech at the Codex meeting, Dr Brundtland said, “As the movement of people, trade of foods - including ingredients and food animal feeding stuffs - becomes more and more global, it turns out to be more and more difficult to solve food safety problems by one country without international collaboration and a consolidated strategy to combat problems.”

“In a globalised world, we all swim in a single microbial sea,” she added.

Mr de Haen noted that public awareness of food safety issues had increased dramatically, especially in the developed countries.

“Concern over BSE disease, the dioxin crisis in 1999, numerous outbreaks of food-borne illness due to microbiological contamination of foods, and the appearance in human food of a genetically modified maize approved only for animal feeding has strongly influenced public opinion,” Mr de Haen explained.

Mr de Haen “urged governments to take consumer concerns seriously and not to play them down and they should apply and enforce Codex standards more rapidly and effectively.”

With regards to food safety systems, both the FAO and the WHO called on governments worldwide to urgently upgrade their domestic food safety systems.  The UN agencies noted that in many developing countries, there was often no comprehensive food safety system in place at all.

These countries, the agencies add, have a chance to adapt existing modern food safety systems through a “leap-forward” approach.

Such an approach would promote the efficient and effective development of food safety systems, which could result in industrial countries getting better assurances that food imports are safe, while developing countries would improve both domestic food production standards and be able to expand their export market.

Both the agencies say that this would be a win-win situation.

Dr Brundtland asked the Commission to “improve the systems we use to ensure food safety and re-establish consumer confidence. We must reassess them all the way from the farm to the table.”

On the issue of genetically modified foods, Dr Brundtland added that the Commission needed to “ensure that there are clear and useful international guidelines for genetically modified food.”

Dr Brundtland also called for measures to encourage input from both developing countries and consumers, and towards this end, has said that the WHO is analysing the possibility of establishing a trust fund to aid the participation of developing countries.

The public too needs to be better informed about the work of the Commission, she noted.

The Deputy Director-General of the FAO said, “People have a right to food which is nutritious and safe.”

“Consumers have repeatedly expressed that for them factors most important to their choice of food are nutritional value, safety, and quality such as freshness and taste. FAO gives equal importance to all of these factors.  Agricultural producers and food processors share the responsibility to ensure that these choices are guaranteed throughout the food chain. To meet this objective, FAO has increased its support to member countries,” he added.

In his appeal to scientists worldwide, Mr de Haen called for increased research on not sufficiently understood food safety issues such as microbiological food contamination, BSE and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

To address the ease of access of information on the Codex standards, Mr de Haen stated that the FAO would be setting up an Internet-based information system on food safety, plant and animal health with other UN agencies and partners. Such a system would include a rapid alert system on food safety issues, he underlined.

“There is a need for governments and the public to have quick access to the Codex Alimentarius standards and to information on new hazards caused by plant pests and animal diseases as well as food-borne diseases affecting humans,” Mr de Haen reiterated.

Mr de Haen called for all countries to actively participate in the Codex Alimentarius. Countries would also need efficient and functioning food control systems.

Developing countries, in particular, are in need of capacity building. To address this, according to the FAO Deputy Director-General, the FAO is currently initiating a global facility that aims at strengthening developing countries’ own food regulatory systems, their competitiveness in international food trade and their preparedness for the participation in the Codex.

The issue of food safety and its effect on health has profound implications.  According to the WHO, an estimated 2 million children die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by food and water.

It is also estimated that thousands of millions of cases of food-borne disease occur every year.

The scourge of food-borne diseases affects even industrialized countries, where an estimated one third of the population has a food-borne disease event every year, and that up to 20 people per million die from such diseases.

These estimates, however, relate primarily to microbiological problems. The total disease burden would be even higher, if diseases stemming from chemical hazards in food were to be included. – SUNS4927

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