The next time you eat something that upsets your stomach, count yourself lucky that you are not one of the 420,000 people who die each year from contaminated food.
If you’ve eaten something that makes you feel less than 100%, you won’t be alone. There’s hardly a day that goes by without a food poisoning report, too often linked to poultry products, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 600 million fall ill each year due to eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals.
Climate change is only expected to make this situation worse, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that we now have a World Food Safety Day, celebrated earlier this month on June 7 under the theme of "Food Safety is Everyone’s Business."
Calling for a greater fostering and support of a food safety culture on farms and in food facilities, Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner for food policy and response, Frank Yiannas, noted that in a global food system and with increases in international travel, if foodborne disease exists somewhere in the world, it can exist anywhere in the world, before adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 3,000 people in the U.S. die each year from foodborne illnesses.
WHO highlighted data showing that, in Europe, every minute, 44 people -- or 23 million per year -- fall sick from eating contaminated food and that 4,700 people lose their lives annually.
It’s worth remembering that, with foodborne illnesses, there is significant under-reporting, so these figures, WHO says, are merely the “tip of the iceberg”.
Norovirus, Campylobacter, Salmonella
Within Europe, the most frequent causes of foodborne illness are diarrheal agents. The most common is norovirus, with an estimated 15 million cases, followed by Campylobacter spp., responsible for 5 million cases.
Non-typhpoidal Salmonella spp. causes the majority of deaths, while other common causes are Campylobacter spp., norovirus, Listeria monocytogenes and Echninococcus miltilocularis. Overall in the region, diarrheal diseases are responsible for 96% of foodborne illnesses, 63% of related deaths and 57% of disease burden.
But foodborne illnesses are a truly global issue. As Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, points out, food is now a global affair with a food chain that wraps around the planet. A simple meal can easily contain ingredients from multiple continents.
Whatever the state of economic development of a country or region, illnesses linked to unsafe food overload healthcare systems and damage economies, trade and tourism. The impact of unsafe food on low- and middle-income economies is thought to be around US$95 billion in lost productivity each year.
As food is now global, WHO stresses that there must be greater international cooperation to prevent unsafe food from causing ill health.
It notes that technological advances, digitalization, novel foods and processing methods all provide a wealth of opportunities to simultaneously enhance food safety, and improve nutrition, livelihoods and trade.
However, it cautions that food safety systems must keep up with the way that food is produced and consumed, and this requires sustained investment and coordinated, multi-sectorial approaches for regulatory legislation, suitable laboratory capacities, and adequate disease surveillance and food monitoring programs.
And in an age where traceability is ever-easier, and ever-more demanded by consumers, it’s ever-more likely that it will not simply be the consumer that suffers when food is contaminated, all those along the supply chain are becoming easier to identify too.