According to WHO, one in ten people falls ill every year from eating contaminated food, and 420 000 resulting in 420 000 deaths each year. Approximately 125 000 children die from food poisoning, the most vulnerable being under the age of 5. Lower-income families and those with preexisting medical conditions are vulnerable to food contamination along with infants, pregnant women and the elderly. Studies show that food contamination can cause long term health issues such as cancer and neurological disorders if mixed with metals and various chemicals.
In Sri Lanka, approximately 560 deaths are reported annually with 80 new patients reported daily for noncommunicable diseases such as cancer. Sri Lanka also has a large number of patients suffering from chronic renal failure due to the high levels of cadmium found in reservoirs, and finally to food due to the use of pesticides in agriculture.
Today, food is no longer regional and is available in almost any corner of the world. Therefore, food safety requires more stringent and important guidelines as livelihoods and world economies may depend on the food safety processes.
Food contamination can occur anywhere within the food supply chain. From farming, animal rearing, harvesting to processing, storing and distributing, every food we consume is open to contamination. The expansion of the food supply and distribution chain has led to global health concerns. Over the years, there have been many examples of food safety concerns with food exports, especially in the meat and dairy sector.
Another cause for concern is the rise in antimicrobial resistance. Overuse of antimicrobials in agriculture, animal husbandry as well as in human use is a global phenomenon. Research suggests that harmful bacteria that are antimicrobial resistant in animals could transmit to humans through food.
A growing concern in food safety lies in preservation techniques to increase shelf life in fresh food. While certain chemicals used for these processes are deemed human safe, misuse is prevalent in certain developing nations.
Food Safety in a Pandemic
There is a significant element of human contact in food production that requires food handlers to follow standardized health guidelines to ensure operations continue. All operations require checklists, guidelines and information to ensure the health of the workers remains a priority. While there is not enough research to disseminate the spread of Covid-19 through food, it is crucial to ensure that the working surfaces and areas are sanitized and safe for all workers.
The FDA provides a detailed checklist on employee health and food safety checklist for human and animal food operations that could be useful. Further, each country has specific regulations and guidelines that it needs to follow diligently.
Being aware of the guidelines and regulations allow different actors within the industry to set up Covid-19 preventative assessment methods and control plans. These would include making adjustments in operation layouts, sanitation and airflow circulation of the facility in the food supply chain.
Food safety is also a cause of concern during long term lockdowns where food is exposed to contamination due to sudden power failure while goods could exceed shelf life. Consumers will have to be extra careful with egg, dairy and meat products as well as pre-cooked food.
Guidelines need to be adhered to on the side of consumers in storing and handling food brought from grocery stores and deliveries.
Climate change can also have adverse effects on food safety. Natural disasters such as floods could also contaminate waters and food systems across the supply chain where toxins mix with floodwaters.
How can we improve food safety?
Food safety requires research, policy work and awareness working simultaneously and collaboratively. The legislature, public health, education, trade and commerce and scientific research should ideally work in unison. Local and international governing bodies for food safety have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of its consumers and have stringent laws driven by scientific data.
It is a shared responsibility where everyone is a stakeholder. Since food is a source of life and our very existence depends on it, accurate and up to date information should be shared amongst all sectors. It is necessary to link different research findings in toxicology, microbiology, parasitology, nutrition, agriculture, health, economics, human and veterinary medical sciences and share amongst consumers in clear and definite terms. Proper labelling giving information on food safety, storage instructions are relevant for consumers to make the right food choices.
Awareness campaigns are necessary for the quick dissemination of information amongst the public. Media plays a critical role in creating clear and precise content suitable for all target audiences.
In conclusion, food safety is linked with food nutrition, food waste and food scarcity. A disruption in one link could have dire consequences in others, resulting in a socio-economic breakdown and an extra burden upon the health sector that is already battling against a pandemic.