The World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a press release on food safety, and the situation is unfortunately a lot less healthy than you might think.

The possibilities for food contamination continue to grow and the industrialization of food production and global trade have increased, rather than reduced the risk, it says, adding that food producers need to do more to protect consumers.

As part of World Health Day, which this year took as its theme food safety, WHO has released statistics from its Foodborne Diseases Burden Epidemiology Group – FERG for short – and the figures make frightening reading.

Looking at data from 2010 reveals that there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne enteric diseases - and 351,000 associated deaths.

The enteric disease agents responsible for most deaths were Salmonella Typhi, causing an estimated 52,000 deaths, enteropathogenic  Escherischia coli, resulting in 37,000 mortalities, and norovirus, thought to have caused 35,000 deaths.

Over 40 percent of people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children under five years old.

Food for thought

WHO reports that the highest disease burden for enteric foodborne diseases was in Africa, followed by South East Asia. But, as it also stresses, we live in a globalized world, and unsafe food not only poses a health risk, but major economic risks too.

Germany’s E coli outbreak in 2011 reportedly caused US$1.3 billion in losses for farmers and associated industries, and US$236 million in emergency payments to 22 European farms.

A local food safety problem can rapidly become an international emergency - the investigation of an outbreak of foodborne disease is vastly more complicated when a single plate or package of food contains ingredients from multiple countries.

According to WHO’s Food Safety and Zoonoses director, Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, the food industry needs to mount a sustainable response, ensuring standards and checks are in place, but he also recognized that it often takes a crisis for the collective consciousness to be stirred and any serious response to be taken.