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  • Foodborne disease is as much of a problem as malaria – how standards are helping to tackle it

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    Ben Hedley

    Foodborne disease is as much of a problem as malaria – how standards are helping to tackle it


    Foodborne diseases place as much of a burden on developing countries as malaria. The global economic burden is estimated to be over US$100 million each year, with 90% of this impacting low and middle-income countries.


    However, whereas the eradication of malaria is a high-profile goal, improving food safety gets less attention. The good news is that standards have an important part to play in improving food safety, and they can be adapted for anything from complex supply chains to informal local markets.


    The toll of unsafe food practices

    Around 600 million people fall ill and die due to unsafe food each year. In emerging economies, the problem is often complicated by pre-existing malnutrition and reduced access to healthcare.


    Foodborne disease outbreaks in developing countries are likely to be underreported and underestimated. Accurate data on the issue is hard to gather, making it more challenging for governments and authorities to address the issue.


    In addition to the human suffering involved, food safety issues have a socioeconomic impact: reduced productivity, additional strain on health systems and a detriment to trade and tourism.


    Tackling the issue of food safety

    This is not an easy problem to address, because it has many causes. Unsafe raw food, inappropriate storage temperature, poor storage infrastructure, inadequate cooking, poor personal hygiene, improper handling methods and cross-contamination of cooked and raw food all contribute.


    Foodborne disease includes bacterial infection such as salmonella, campylobacter, E-coli, listeria, and cholera. Viruses including Hepatitis A can be transmitted through food, causing lasting liver disease. Food can also carry parasites, prions (infectious agents composed of protein - bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE is associated with ingestion of prions). Food can also be compromised by chemicals, which may occur through mould, pollution of air, water or soil or through other vectors.


    Contamination of food can take place within the home, or at any point in the supply chain – farming, distribution, packing, wholesale, retail and restaurants. The challenge is partly one of awareness and improving the understanding of food safety, but it is also about infrastructure and access to refrigerated transport, clean water, reliable energy and refrigeration.


    Using an international standard to save lives

    There is sometimes a perception that standards from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are intended for large corporations rather than small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but this is not the case.


    ISO 22000 Food safety management helps organizations to identify food safety hazards and reduce exposure to risk. It outlines the processes that can be used to create a food safety management system (FSMS), for example by identifying hazards and putting controls in place.


    A National Quality Infrastructure can be used to bring about systemic change, helping to enforce regulations, raise awareness and monitor performance effectively. Find out more here.



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