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Wed 1 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

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WHO: food safety must improve

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation are urging countries to strengthen their food safety systems and to be far more vigilant with food producers and traders.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation are urging countries to strengthen their food safety systems and to be far more vigilant with food producers and traders.

Recent food safety incidents - like the discovery of the industrial chemical melamine in animal and fish feed, or the unauthorised use of certain veterinary drugs in intense aquaculture - can affect health and often lead to rejections of food products in international trade.

"Food safety is an issue for every country and ultimately every food consumer. All countries can benefit from taking stronger measures to fill safety gaps in the sometimes considerable journey food takes from the farm to the table," said Dr Jørgen Schlundt, director of WHO's department of food safety and foodborne diseases.

Food safety incidents are often caused by lack of knowledge of food safety requirements and of their implications, or by the illegal or fraudulent use of ingredients including unauthorised food additives or veterinary drugs. During the last 12 months, an average of up to 200 food safety incidents per month have been investigated by the WHO and FAO to determine their public health impact.

"Countries are only able to keep their shares in globalised food markets and the trust of consumers if they apply internationally agreed food quality and safety standards," said Ezzeddine Boutrif, director of FAO's nutrition and consumer protection division. "Consumers have a right to be informed about potential hazards in food and to be protected against them."

Weak food safety systems can lead to a higher incidence of food safety problems and diseases caused by micro-organisms such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and Listeria, by residues of agricultural chemicals (pesticides, veterinary drugs, etc) and by the use of unauthorised food additives. Diarrhoeal diseases alone, due mainly to unsafe food and water, kill 1.8 million children every year.

Food production systems in developing countries are facing a series of challenges: population growth and urbanisation, changing dietary patterns, and industrialisation of food and agricultural production. Climate conditions, poor sanitation and weak public infrastructure compound these difficulties.

Food safety legislation in many developing countries is often incomplete or obsolete, or not in line with international requirements. Responsibility for food safety and control tends to be dispersed across many institutions. Laboratories lack essential equipment and supplies.

Many developed countries are in similar situations with fragmented food safety systems that often do not include or cover primary production where many food safety issues originate. For example, the spread in recent years of new Salmonella strains in poultry originated in developed countries and was spread globally through trade.

FAO and WHO are trying to help countries improve their food safety procedures. The Codex Alimentarius Commission set up by the two bodies provides food safety standards that provide a model for countries to use in their legislation. The application of these standards and guidelines would ensure food safety and consumer protection, according to WHO and FAO.

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