Food Law News - FAO/WHO/WTO/Codex - 2002

WHO Press Release (WHO/10), 25 February 2002

PAN-EUROPEAN CONFERENCE - Foodborne Diseases are on the Rise in Europe - FAO/WHO Call For Better Consumer Protection

Food safety and quality need to be improved in all European countries because foodborne diseases have increased considerably in the region in the past decade, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a joint statement issued today. On the rise in particular are diseases from microbiological hazards such as Salmonella and Campylobacter and cases of foods contaminated by chemical hazards, such as dioxin, lead and cadmium, according to the two UN agencies.

The statement was issued on the opening day of the First Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality in Budapest. Food safety experts from more than 40 countries, including food producers and consumers' associations from Western, Central and Eastern Europe and other countries in transition are meeting in Budapest (25-28 February) to discuss how to improve food safety and strengthen consumer confidence after recent food scares.

The meeting is jointly organized by FAO and WHO. It is co-sponsored by the European Community and some FAO/WHO member countries.

"While food has never been safer than it is today in Europe, this should not lead us to complacency. Better monitoring systems are revealing more and more cases of food-borne illness. The number of people suffering from food-borne diseases or even die from them is still far too high," said Hartwig de Haen, FAO Assistant Director-General.

"WHO estimates that, worldwide, thousands of millions of cases of food-borne disease occur every year. As many as one person in three in industrialized countries may be affected by foodborne illness each year, resulting in human suffering and economic losses running into billions of US dollars. Particularly at risk are children, pregnant women, the sick, the poor and the elderly." said Dr David Nabarro, WHO Executive Director.

"The consumer has the right to safe food in all European countries. Food safety 'from farm to fork' needs to be ensured throughout the region. To save costs and prevent contamination, food safety must begin with good agricultural practices," de Haen added.

National policies and regulations on food safety and quality are still very diverse in Europe, according to de Haen. "Food safety control systems in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in Central Asian Republics are very different from the EU, and also vary among each other. Europe is certainly not aiming for a single standard diet. The challenge is: harmonisation in diversity. We need to bring different food safety and quality policies across Europe closer together to protect the health and well-being of consumers. Different food safety systems need to become comparable and fully transparent."

"Problems with food safety over the last decades have been aggravated by, lack of collaboration between different authorities at the national level. WHO, together with FAO and our Member States are working hard to develop new, evidence-based, preventative strategies to lower risk of disease. This work focuses on the whole food production chain. We promote a dialogue with consumers. We encourage interdisciplinary collaboration all the way from farm to table. Different authorities at the national level and different international organizations will have to work together and co-ordinate their efforts for this to work." noted Nabarro.

Salmonella is still the most frequently reported causal agent of foodborne disease outbreaks in East and West European countries, according to FAO/WHO. Outbreaks occur in private homes and in mass catering kitchens in restaurants, cafeterias, catering services, schools, kindergartens and hospitals.

In addition, Campylobacter is currently the most commonly reported gastrointestinal pathogen in many countries, including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Campylobacteriosis is a bacterial infection that affects the intestinal tract.

The contamination of food by chemical hazards is another major public health concern. In Central and Eastern Europe food contamination arises largely from industrial contamination of air, soil and water. One of the hot spots is the Aral Sea area. For almost 30 years the use of water for irrigation of cotton monoculture and the heavy use of insecticides, pesticides and herbicides has created a critical situation for the health of the local population.

FAO/WHO recommended that all countries have science-based risk assessment and management systems in place to deal with microbiological and chemical hazards in food. In some countries, infrastructure needs to be strengthened to achieve a higher level of protection. "Agriculture and health institutions must work together to ensure food safety," de Haen said.

Currently FAO and WHO are performing a number of microbiological risk assessments, the first ever to be performed at the international level. The food-pathogen combinations that have been identified through various expert consultations as deserving immediate attention are Listeria in ready to eat foods, Campylobacter in poultry, Vibrio in seafood, and Salmonella in eggs and poultry. "These risk assessments will provide templates for Member States to adapt them to their national situation and to assist them in addressing the threats of these pathogens in the most efficient way," Nabarro said.

FAO and WHO stressed the many advantages of safer and high quality food. "Safer food means lower incidence of foodborne diseases, lower public health costs, fewer barriers to international trade, lower productivity losses and better competitiveness."

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