"Clearly, more needs to be done globally to reverse the upward curve which represents escalating sickness and death from consumption of unsafe food," said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General. With more than 30 years of experience and its expertise in this area, WHO, is a global leader on public health aspects of food safety. It is in this context that we now intensify our food safety work and strengthen our longstanding co-operation with FAO, an important partner," she stated.
While every single person is at risk for foodborne illness, it is estimated that up to 30% of people in industrialized countries may suffer from foodborne illness each year. Less well documented, the problem is likely to be even greater in developing countries where hundreds of millions of people suffer from diarrhoea, the most common symptom of foodborne illness. An estimated 1.8 million children under the age of five died of diarrhoeal diseases in 1999 and a large proportion of this illness is thought to originate in food and drinking water. Apart from the human suffering, the economic and social impact of foodborne diseases is enormous.
"Foodborne illness is clearly increasing throughout the world and apart from the fact that this trend is caused by micro-organisms, the reasons for the rise are not known with certainty," said Ms Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Executive Director responsible for food safety issues. Micro-organisms responsible for foodborne illness include Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, various strains of E. coli and numerous parasitic and viral agents. "Another worrying tendency, causing concern about successfully treating patients, is that new micro-organisms are emerging and some of these are developing resistance to antibiotics which used to be effective," said Dr David Heymann, WHO Executive Director of the Communicable Diseases cluster.
However, the range of micro-organisms responsible for the majority of foodborne illness is not very broad and it is likely that less than two dozen species of micro-organisms account for more than 90% of the disease. With intensified work on foodborne diseases and their root causes, significant progress in containing the problem can be achieved.
The future plan for increased food safety work includes the following actions:
Working with Member-States to obtain more complete data, directly linking foodborne diseases with micro-organisms in food, to better understand the problem;
Creating, with FAO, a risk assessment body to review the most important micro-organisms in food, with the intention to reduce foodborne illness;
Determining research needs on genetically modified foods to assess whether they have any potential implications for human health;
Co-operating more with various partners, through the Codex Alimentarius and other international mechanisms, and encouraging more synergy between national health and agriculture bodies.
The expansion of food safety activities was announced at the 105th session of the WHO Executive Board. This body, comprised of 32 Member States, will consider WHO's proposed food safety plan this week. If supported, a draft resolution will be sent to the May session of the World Health Assembly for adoption as official WHO policy.