Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

World Health Day 2015: It's Time To Focus On Food Safety

With World Health Organization (WHO) declaring ‘food safety’ as this year’s theme for World Health Day, many questions related to the subject have resurfaced. “What is in your food? Where did you purchase the ingredients? Is your food safe from food-borne pathogens?”

These are some of the questions that WHO will be trying to answer today along with Food Business Operators (FBOs), public health experts, policy-makers and the general public to promote food safety.
The World Health Day will focus on the importance of food safety over the whole spectrum of the food chain, from production and transportation, to food preparation and eventual consumption.

Over 200 diseases are caused by dangerous food-borne pathogens such as bacteria, parasites, viruses and toxins, as well as harmful chemicals. It is estimated that two million deaths occur every year from contaminated food or drinking water (WHO, 2015). In India, the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) reports that there were 306 disease outbreaks due to food contamination in 2014 alone! This speaks volumes for the urgent need for exercising food safety measures.

In the last few decades, largely as a result of globalization, the process by which food is produced and eventually reaches the consumer has witnessed a paradigm shift, due to the fast and modernised transportation system. Food that is produced and processed at one place may become contaminated at the source, but affect the health of the consumer, located at the other side of the globe. This underscores the need for maintaining high standards of food safety at all stages of the food chain – from “farm to fork”

Food-borne pathogens and disease
Food-borne pathogens are usually the most common cause of food contamination. The most common symptoms of food-borne disease are gastrointestinal in nature, like diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting; however, there may be neurological, gynecological, immunological and other symptoms. The incubation period (the time between exposure to the pathogen and onset of symptoms) can range from several hours to one week.

Food-borne pathogens can cause severe diarrhea or debilitating infections including meningitis, and may lead to long-lasting disability and even death. Examples of unsafe food include uncooked foods of animal origin, fruits and vegetables contaminated with feces, and raw shellfish containing marine biotoxins. Food-borne pathogens include harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), Listeria, Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Shigella spp., Yersinia enterocolitica, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium difficile, and others; viruses like Norovirus and Hepatitis A virus; parasites like Echinococcus spp., Ascaris, Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolytica, Giardia, Toxoplasma gondii and fungi such as yeasts and molds.

Role of food testing labs in food safety
It goes without saying that food is an integral part of everyday life; it provides nutrition and nourishment for leading a healthy life. The food that we consume should be safe in all aspects so that it does not pose any harm to the body. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the food production process should go through a rigorous process of monitoring and testing. Therefore, the role of food testing laboratories is of utmost importance in this whole process.

Food products tested can range from processed foods to agricultural commodities, from the field to the store. The testing can be done on raw materials, the product during its processing and production, as well as the finished products. The various categories of food business operators (FBOs) who can avail the services of the food testing labs include food manufacturers/processors, importers and food service establishments like hotels/restaurants etc.

Role of FBOs in food hygiene and food safety
The food business, like all other businesses, must be operated with sincerity, responsibility, transparency, and accountability. Importantly, the FBOs must realise that they too have a major responsibility in society, since the food they supply or serve has a direct bearing on the health of the citizens. The FBOs should maintain high standards of food safety and must maintain general hygienic and sanitary practices. The catering and food service establishments such as hotels, restaurants, snack bars, canteens, catering services etc. come in contact directly with the public-at-large; these should exercise scrupulous hygienic measures in order to ensure the safety of their customers.

Food safety while eating out
One should be extra vigilant, especially when eating out, in order to protect oneself and one’s family. Make sure that the restaurant is clean. Confirm that tables, floors, and utensils are clean. See that the waiters serving food are wearing clean clothes and maintaining basic personal hygiene (not coughing, sneezing, touching nose, smoking or chewing tobacco products etc.). Ensure that there are no insects like flies, cockroaches or rodents roaming about on the floor. Check that your food is cooked thoroughly. Meat, fish, poultry, and eggs should be cooked thoroughly to kill germs. If food is served undercooked or raw, send it back. Following these simple instructions will ensure a safe, healthy, and enjoyable eating experience for all.

While eating outdoors, such as a picnic or in an open-air café, it is important that our surroundings are clean and pleasant. This will definitely make our eating experience all the more enjoyable. Importantly, if the surroundings are unhygienic and dirty, this will increase the chances of food contamination, leading to ill health. The recently launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) campaign is highly commendable and this could lead to a cleaner environment where we all would enjoy our food while eating outdoors.

Food safety – A WHO initiative
WHO has come-up with an ingenious idea for spreading awareness about food safety amongst food handlers that applies not only to homes and private canteens, but also to commercial establishments such as hotels and restaurants. WHO has developed a poster highlighting “five keys to safer food”. In essence, the five keys are:

• Keeping clean, both oneself as well as the cooking area while preparing food.
• Separating raw food from cooked food in order to prevent cross contamination.
• Cooking the food thoroughly in order to kill all germs that may be present.
• Keeping the food at safe temperatures: hot food hot (60°C+), cold food cold (5°C or lower), especially during buffet service.
• Using safe water and raw materials for cooking.

Food safety – The way forward
Unfortunately, the issue of food safety has not received the attention that it deserves. In comparison to “treating” a disease like for example, diarrheal disease, focusing on the root cause – unhygienic food and water – has taken a back-seat in the agenda of public health experts, policy-makers, media, and the lay public alike. Only when serious outbreaks occur, do the public health experts take note. But even these types of incidences fail to create a ripple in the mainstream media. Therefore, it is high time that the serious issue of food safety received its due attention.

WHO has taken a commendable step in the right direction, in order to spread the word that the world’s people, especially impoverished and malnourished children, receive good quality, safe and nutritious food to experience a better future.
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