By Opija Raduk

With an estimated 600 million cases of food borne illnesses annually, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies globally.

Foodborne diseases in low-income and middle-income countries costs at least US$100 billion a year, with this cost exceeding US$500 million for 28 countries, according to a recent World Bank study.

In a joint press release by world leaders in February this year at the First Food Safety International Conference, calls for greater international cooperation were emphasized to prevent unsafe food from causing ill health and hampering progress towards sustainable development.

“Food should be a source of nourishment and enjoyment, not a cause of disease or death,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the conference. “Unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, but has not received the political attention it deserves. Ensuring people have access to safe food takes sustained investment in stronger regulations, laboratories, surveillance and monitoring. In our globalized world, food safety is everyone’s issue.”

Foodborne illnesses may result from the consumption of food contaminated by microbial pathogens, toxic chemicals or radioactive materials. According to WHO food safety is becoming increasingly important in the context of changing food habits, popularization of mass catering establishments and the globalization of our food supply.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that food safety must be a paramount goal at every stage of the food chain, from production to harvest, processing, storage, distribution, preparation and consumption.

Ensuring food safety starts with production; at the farm level. In this regard, misuse of agro-chemicals, including pesticides, growth hormones and veterinary drugs may have harmful effects on human health. The microbial and chemical risks could be introduced at the farm-level for example, by using water contaminated by industrial waste or poultry farm waste for irrigation of crops.

Farming without the use of pesticides is being promoted in many countries in the world, as people are becoming health-conscious especially in urban settings. Although organic products are expensive compared to commonly available food items, there is a tendency among health- conscious consumers to buy organic foods.

To ensure that people eat safe food, the WHO recommends: washing raw fruits and vegetables with tap water thoroughly , not mixing raw food and ready-to-eat food, using safe drinking water for food preparation, checking use-by dates and labels as well as buying packed food and reheating all leftovers until they are steaming hot.