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Food safety a threat to global health and economies

With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies all over the world.

Experts gathered this week in Addis Ababa for the First International Food Safety Conference have warned that food is an issue that needs to be depoliticised and prioritised in order to ensure improved health and wellbeing across the planet.

Foodborne diseases in low- and middle-income countries costs at least US$100 billion a year according to a recent World Bank study.

Ongoing changes in climate, global food production and supply systems affect consumers, industries and the planet itself and so food safety systems need to keep pace with these changes.

On top of this, the burden of unsafe food affects poor and marginalised people the most and poses sustainability and development challenges.

Despite the growing recognition of the importance of food safety in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the main objectives of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, efforts to strengthen food safety systems remain fragmented and the gains, particularly in many developing countries, have been well below expectations.

Greater international cooperation is needed to prevent unsafe food from causing ill health, world leaders said at the opening session of the First International Food Safety Conference. The event, held in Addis Ababa, is organised by the African Union (AU), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“The cost of unsafe food goes far beyond human suffering, it overloads health care systems. Malnutrition today is the largest cause of health loss in the world,” Director General of FAO Jose Graziano da Silva said. Estimates indicate that the global cost of malnutrition is US$3.5-trillion annually, with obesity alone costing US$2-trillion per year.

According to Da Silva, scientific studies indicate that climate change is reducing the level of important nutrients like zinc, iron, calcium and potassium in important staple crops – particularly in wheat, barley, potatoes and rice.

He added that scientific publication The Lancet has just released a report highlighting the synergy of three pandemics – obesity, under nutrition and climate change – that are all interacting with each other to produce complex consequences.

“So we have to face this challenge together through the food system approach. We have to guarantee that our food systems provide safe and healthy nutritious food for all,” said Da Silva.

He said this could be done by using less chemicals in agricultural sectors, investing in adaptation to climate change as well as promoting more complete food labeling in order to better inform consumers.

According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO,  food was fundamental to global survival.

“Food brings families, friends and communities together. Food is an essential part of what it means to be human, which is why unsafe food is unacceptable,” said Ghebreyesus.

According to Ghebreyesus, unsafe food becomes a source of disease and death.

“Unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, and yet food safety has not received the political attention it deserves,” he said.

More food safety issues are set down for discussion at the conference over the next two days.

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