An estimated 91 million people in Africa in a year consume contaminated food that renders them ill, and around 137,000 people die. Food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances cause diseases ranging from acute diarrhoea to lifelong conditions, including some cancers.
The risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and- middle income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation. It is estimated that in 2015, 159 million people still collected drinking water directly from surface water sources, 58% of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to the expense for health care, foodborne diseases impose considerable other costs to individuals, communities and countries due to the lost income from illness-related loss of work. Beyond the US$15 billion in medical expenses that households in low- and middle-income economies spend each year because of unsafe food, a recent World Bank study also found that those economies lose US$95.2 billion in economic productivity.
Most of this health burden and economic loss could be avoided with proper management of food and food products and appropriate hygiene by producers and consumers.
Food safety has become such a troublesome condition, the United Nations is instigating the first World Food Safety Day this 7 June, with the theme “Food Safety, Everyone’s Business”, to raise global attention to the dangers and the solutions that individuals, producers and governments must make a way of life to protect the quality of food we consume.
World Food Safety Day highlights the need for better prevention, detection and management of foodborne risks.
According to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, “Foodborne diseases are completely preventable.” All players along the food chain, she stresses, “have a role in making food safe, beginning with producers and processors and moving to distributors, food safety regulators, retailers and eventually servers and consumers.”
Contaminated food not only affects human health, it taints food security, economic prosperity, agriculture vitality, market access, tourism and sustainable development. Although everyone is susceptible, infants, young children, pregnant women, older persons and individuals with a weakened immune system (such as HIV infection, liver disease or who are on cancer treatment) are particularly vulnerable.
In the past few years, WHO has been increasing its support to countries in Africa to strengthen the laboratory-based foodborne disease surveillance and build national capacity to prevent, detect and respond to food safety emergencies.
This has included, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the strengthening of national networks and participation in the International Food Safety Authorities Network.
WHO also works with countries to target food safety health promotion initiatives to promote food hygiene in different settings, such as schools and food markets, and for infant and young child feeding practices.
The WHO Five Keys to Safer Food provide basic principles for assuring the safety of food and preventing foodborne diseases.