Over the next three days, some 300 participants from 120 countries and organizations will present and discuss their successes and mistakes in fighting foodborne disease. Lessons learned at the Global Forum will help countries improve their food safety strategies and systems, and ultimately reduce the large foodborne disease burden.
Participants will consider, among other issues, the handling of food safety emergencies, tackling currently identified and emerging microbiological and chemical hazards and meeting the needs of developing countries.
New challenges in food safety have arisen as a result of changes in microbiological and chemical hazards, shifts in consumption patterns, urbanization, new food production methods, modern technology and increases in international trade and travel.
Foodborne disease is of great concern. According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, more than 2 million people - principally children - die every year from diarrhoea caused by consuming contaminated food and water. Even in industrialized countries, as much as one-third of the population experiences foodborne disease every year. Food safety, a critical area of public health, is a high priority for both WHO and FAO.
Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General, said, "Many countries are reporting significant increases in foodborne disease. We must reflect on these trends. We must try to improve our food safety systems, and avoid repeating past mistakes. WHO, together with FAO and our Member States, are working hard to develop new evidence-based, preventative strategies to lower disease risk throughout the whole food production chain."
The main hazards are well identified and there are proven, cost-effective measures that protect populations against them. Some countries have intensified efforts against certain pathogens, and have obtained good results in five to ten years. The first step is for a government to set food safety high on the political agenda.
Food safety problems can have serious consequences on a country's economy. According to the United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gross public expenditures as a result of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow disease) crisis were an estimated £3.4 billion from 1996-2000. Food safety problems hurt developing countries by hindering their economic development. Food exports, an important source of foreign exchange and revenue, are refused if they do not meet the standards of importing countries resulting in the loss of jobs in the food and agriculture industries of developing countries. Productivity suffers in all sectors because so many workers fall ill. International tourism cannot achieve its full potential.
"Food safety is a shared responsibility of developed and developing countries," FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf told the Forum. "With the increasing globalization of trade in food products, health requirements applied by importing countries must seek to protect consumers and not to raise technical barriers to trade."
Dr Diouf urged "developed countries to provide the developing countries with their technical and financial support."
The Global Forum will help build international cooperation among countries on food safety.
With the food supply becoming more global, no country can solve food safety problems alone.
FAO and WHO jointly convened the Forum at the recommendation of their member countries. The final communiqué of the G-8 Summit, held in Okinawa, Japan in 2000, called on the two UN agencies to "organize periodic international meetings of food safety regulators..."