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Food Safety

Food safety - Key facts and overview

Key Facts


- Interconnectedness: Food safety, nutrition, and food security are closely related.

- Illness and Death: Around 600 million people worldwide—nearly 1 in 10—fall ill from contaminated food each year, with 420,000 fatalities, leading to a loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).

- Economic Impact: Unsafe food costs low- and middle-income countries approximately $110 billion annually in lost productivity and medical expenses.

- Child Burden: Children under five bear 40% of the foodborne disease burden, resulting in 125,000 deaths annually.

- Socioeconomic Impact: Foodborne diseases hinder socioeconomic progress by straining healthcare systems and damaging economies, tourism, and trade.




Access to safe and nutritious food is essential for life and health. Food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals can cause over 200 diseases, from diarrhea to cancers. This issue particularly affects infants, young children, the elderly, and the sick, perpetuating a cycle of disease and malnutrition. Effective food safety requires collaboration among governments, producers, and consumers to build robust food systems.


Major Foodborne Illnesses and Causes


Foodborne illnesses can be infectious or toxic, stemming from bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals in contaminated food. Chemical contamination can cause acute poisoning or chronic diseases like cancer, leading to long-term disabilities and fatalities.



- Common Pathogens: Salmonella, Campylobacter, and enterohaemorrhagic E. coli affect millions annually, causing severe outcomes like fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

  - Sources: Salmonellosis from eggs, poultry, and animal products; Campylobacter from raw milk, undercooked poultry, and water; E. coli from unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat, and contaminated produce.

- Listeria: Can cause miscarriage in pregnant women or death in newborns, found in unpasteurized dairy products and ready-to-eat foods, growing even in refrigeration.

- Vibrio cholerae: Causes cholera through contaminated water or food, leading to severe dehydration and potentially death, linked to rice, vegetables, millet gruel, and seafood.

- Antimicrobial Resistance: Overuse of antibiotics in medicine has led to resistant bacteria, complicating the treatment of foodborne infections.



- Norovirus: Causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, and is a common foodborne infection.

- Hepatitis A: Transmitted through food, causing long-term liver disease, typically spread by raw or undercooked seafood or contaminated produce.



- Fish-borne Trematodes and Tapeworms: Can be transmitted through food or direct contact with animals, contaminating fresh produce via water or soil.



- BSE (Mad Cow Disease): Affects cattle and can lead to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans through contaminated meat products, specifically brain tissue.



- Toxins and Pollutants: Mycotoxins, marine biotoxins, and environmental pollutants like dioxins and PCBs, as well as heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury, can cause serious health issues, including cancer, reproductive problems, and neurological damage.


The Burden of Foodborne Diseases


The global burden of foodborne diseases is often underestimated due to underreporting and difficulty in establishing direct links between food contamination and health outcomes. According to a 2015 WHO report, foodborne diseases cause over 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths annually, disproportionately affecting children under five and those in low- and middle-income countries. The economic impact is significant, with annual productivity losses and treatment costs totaling around $110 billion.


The Evolving World and Food Safety


Safe food supplies are vital for national economies, trade, tourism, and sustainable development. Urbanization and changing consumer habits have increased the demand for food prepared in public places, and globalization has extended the food supply chain, complicating food safety. Climate change is also expected to impact food safety, increasing the responsibility on producers and handlers.


A Public Health Priority


Governments must prioritize food safety by developing policies, regulatory frameworks, and effective systems. Education on safe food handling, such as the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food, is crucial for both consumers and food handlers. Producers should also follow guidelines like the WHO Five Keys to Growing Safer Fruits and Vegetables to ensure food safety from farm to table.

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