2015 World Health Day focuses on Food Safety

Posted on April 07, 2015

Food safety is vital for public health and well-being. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises this and used it as the theme for World Health Day 2015 celebrated on 7 April. The Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being (IFNuW) at the University of Pretoria (UP) plays an important role in addressing this problem in South Africa and Africa.

Food safety is internationally recognised as one of the most important risks to public health and food security. Safe, healthy, nutritious, affordable food is a basic human right addressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the South African Constitution.

Food safety has also been identified as one of the key national focus areas in the National Policy on Food and Nutrition Security. Food becomes unsafe due to spoilage and contamination while being produced, packed, transported, stored, processed or prepared. Unsafe food poses multiple threats to human health and well-being and can negatively affect productivity, economic growth and trade. Food-borne pathogens can cause more than 200 different diseases. One of the symptoms of these diseases is diarrhoea, which particularly affects children.

In South Africa, the incidence of diarrhoea in children below the age of five doubled from 128,7 per 1 000 in 2004 to 268,7 per 1 000 in 2005. Furthermore, the Centre for Enteric Diseases, in the 2006 South African Health Report, attributed 15% of mortality in children below age five to gastroenteritis, second only to lower respiratory tract infections. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal 4, ‘reducing by two thirds the under-five mortality rate by 2015’, emphasised that strategies to reduce the burden of disease attributable to diarrhoeal pathogens in children under five years need to become a major focus. Unsafe food constitutes a loss in the food system and contributes to food waste. In South Africa over 12 million people struggle to gain access to enough food to meet their daily requirements. Food safety is therefore a major concern.

Prof Lise Korsten of the University's IFNuW reports that South Africa has too little information on food-borne disease outbreaks. Food safety is also not a major focus area despite the global reported disease outbreaks and the known underreporting in developing countries. The WHO estimates that more than two million people die annually due to food- and water-borne diseases. Foods containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances can, therefore, negatively impact on public health and food security. New threats to food safety are also constantly emerging due to changes in food production, distribution and consumption patterns; environmental changes due to global warming; new and emerging pathogens; and antimicrobial resistance. Growing travel and trade further increase the likelihood that food contamination can spread rapidly and cause major disease outbreaks. This not only affects public health and trade but also impacts on the trust and credibility of all the players in the supply chain.

Food safety is distinct from food security but is also an important part of, and pre-requisite for, sustainable food security. The WHO World Health Day 2015 gave recognition to the important role of food safety in food production, processing and trade. Therefore, the WHO used this World Health Day to call on policy makers around the world to build and maintain adequate food safety systems and infrastructures, respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain, integrate food safety into broader national food policies and programmes, and foster communication, information sharing, and joint action between public health, animal health, agriculture and other sectors. The WHO World Health Day should contribute to an improved understanding of the challenges faced, and the necessity to provide food safety assurance for all. This will require more effective collaboration and coordination among all role players in order to prevent, detect and respond to food-borne diseases.

UP is addressing the national food safety challenges through research conducted by the IFNuW and the DST/NRF Centre for Excellence in Food Security that the University co-hosts with the University of the Western Cape. This research seeks to find practical ways to improve national food supplies through food safety systems, more effective detection of food-borne pathogens and prevention of contamination in the supply chain from production to consumption. Areas where improvements could be made include water quality in irrigation and processing, more effective food preparation, food storage, management of waste water, sanitation and personal hygiene. Food safety is a shared responsibility that can only be achieved within an effective, regulated system.

For more information contact Prof Lise Korsten on 012 420 3295 or at [email protected].


- Author Prof Sheryl Hendriks

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