Food can kill.
In the United States alone, an estimated 76 million people got sick from food-borne illnesses in 1999 -- and 5 000 of them died. Worldwide, the incidence of food-borne diseases may be 300 to 350 times higher than the number of reported cases.
The growth in travel and trade means that hazards can cross borders faster. Regulatory structures are needed that do not discriminate against poorer countries. Biotechnology and the spread of organic farming raise new questions too. Producers, officials and consumers everywhere need information more than ever before.
The Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators, taking place in Marrakesh, Morocco, from 28-30 January, will do much to make that information available. Organized by FAO and the World Health Organization following a request by the G8, it will bring together food safety officials from around the world as well as observers from a number of United Nations agencies and development organizations.
Lagging food safety
"Our capacity to produce food has grown in recent years. Our capacity to ensure that it is safe has sometimes lagged behind," says the lead organizer of the Forum, FAO consumer protection expert Ezzedine Boutrif. "This damages trade as well as health." For example, failure to meet aflatoxin regulations for groundnut products costs African countries US$250 million in lost trade a year. Concerns about cholera in fish cost Peru US$700 million in 1991. If the key players in every country work together, adds Dr Boutrif, they can prevent much of this.
The framework for action already exists. Since 1963, FAO and WHO have jointly administered the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets and updates standards on a wide range of food issues. These include microbial contamination, natural and environmental toxins, acceptable levels of pesticide residues, veterinary drugs, labelling and much more.
Its recommendations are advisory, but agreements under the World Trade Organization use them as a yardstick. The Commission and its various committees already link experts worldwide, and the Marrakesh Forum will promote a broader international exchange of views and expertise that will undoubtedly facilitate the negotiation process.
Hazards don't respect borders
This is timely. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease, is one hazard that shows how international food-safety issues have become, according to Mitsuhiro Ushio of Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. In a paper that will be submitted to the forum, he points out that the recent outbreak offers many lessons.
"When an issue occurs somewhere in the world, we should not overlook the fact that a large quantity of food and feed are globally distributed … A country like Japan, which relies on imported food for more than 60 percent of food supply, must consider the safety of imported food." At the same time, he says, producers' access to export markets depends on their capacity to meet the regulatory requirements of importing countries.
Prevention is better than cure. Many countries now require risk management through Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP. Instead of relying solely on inspection of foodstuffs before delivery, the producer works out exactly where problems might occur and introduces measures to prevent them. If this is done for every potential hazard point and the measures are maintained, the food will be safe.
Food safety: neither easy nor cheap
But drawing up a HACCP can be costly and difficult. For example, a producer who must identify the points at which microbial contamination may occur needs to know which pathogens may attack the product and how they breed. But this information may not be easily available to a food producer in a developing country. So capacity building is an important topic of the Marrakesh Forum.
To protect their own people from food-borne hazards and meet international standards for export, developing countries often need significant investment in training and laboratory facilities. Tests for detecting chemical residues can be costly and difficult to perform reliably. For example, tests for potentially carcinogenic dioxin residues, such as those detected in Belgian animal feed in 1999, can take five to six weeks. However, significant progress could be made if basic food safety principles were applied. Over 50 percent of the food consignments rejected by the United States fail on simple hygiene and labeling grounds.
International bodies have made some provision for technical assistance in food safety. The Codex Alimentarius Commission has produced guidelines and training materials for the application of the HACCP system. FAO has set up a Trust Fund to help the least-developed countries improve their food safety.
Moreover, under the Uruguay Round, developed countries are committed to help developing countries improve food safety so they can compete in the international marketplace. However, some developing countries are not fully aware of this opportunity. The Forum will ensure greater knowledge of what assistance is available -- and give developed countries the chance to learn about the needs of developing countries.
But even countries with the best-regulated food-safety systems acknowledge that many food-poisoning incidents happen because of storage and food preparation methods in homes and restaurants. For that reason, the Forum will address communication and participation -- targeting consumers as well as the industry.
"Food safety is especially pressing because so many incidents are preventable," says Dr. Boutrif. "This forum is about preventing them. If it results in a transfer of both knowledge and resources, we will be well pleased."