Improving the region's food safety
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Improving the region's food safety

In a region with poor food safety standards, policy makers, the private sector and consumers in Asia and the Pacific must do better.

Each year, hundreds of millions of people are sickened by eating unsafe food. Here, in the Asia-Pacific region, the situation can also be deadly.

According to the latest figures, gathered just prior to the global pandemic, some 225,000 people die each year from food-borne illnesses in Asia and the Pacific. That's more than half of the global fatalities. Sadly, nearly a third of those who perish, 30%, are children.

The hazards of unsafe food are all around us every day. While food poisoning is often caused by eating food that has encountered traces of human or animal faeces from contaminated handling or surfaces, it can also be caused by improper storage. Many street markets routinely have food that sits out on a hot day, sometimes for hours. Food that should be refrigerated is not. Eating chicken or eggs that are not fully cooked can also make us sick. The list is long.

Unsafe food is a threat to both human health and the economies of our countries. Unsafe food disproportionally affects vulnerable and marginalised people, especially women and children, as well as populations confronting natural disasters and conflict. Poor handling of food also damages global trade leading to further food waste, which is unacceptable in a world where too many people still suffer from hunger.

But these hazards can, in most cases, be overcome by the proper handling of food, including better hygiene practices of those preparing food for consumption, and refrigeration of foods that are meant to be kept cold or frozen. But much more needs to be done.

Governments can strengthen their national food control systems and increase surveillance activities, as well as improving communication with food businesses and the public -- these acts should be an everyday occurrence but are particularly important following a natural disaster where food may be contaminated.

There is also a business case to be made for improving food safety standards in Asia and the Pacific, beginning at the source where food is produced, to those handling the food, and all along the value chain until it reaches the retailer and consumer.

Food standards, especially those of Codex Alimentarius, ensure fair practices in food trade. Many countries in this region are major producers and exporters of food, and many more are aspiring to become key members of this group. Along food value chains, there are multiple players, and food changes hands many times and goes through several processing steps. An incident can happen at any time and render the food unsafe. That's why we should always be prepared with an adequate response that ensures that contaminated food does not reach consumers.

All along the food value chain, the private sector can improve its food safety management plans and share information with each other, as well as improving their communication with consumers. Meanwhile, consumers, all of us, should know how to report or respond to a food safety incident, including being mindful of how to prepare for the unexpected at home and how to react when a food safety incident occurs. So, we all need to do our part -- everyone is a risk manager when it comes to evaluating food safety risks in our daily choices. That's what this World Food Safety Day is all about.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been working together for many years to provide guidance to our members and others, including the private sector, on developing and implementing proper and effective standards to ensure food is safe to eat.

But food safety is everyone's business. In 2019, the first World Food Safety Day was marked on June 7. Adopted a year earlier by the United Nations General Assembly, the resolution proclaimed a World Food Safety Day would help us all to better understand the myriad benefits of safe food, and the dangers of food that is not safe.

World Food Safety Day is a chance for everyone to take a moment to pay closer attention to something many of us take for granted -- that the food we are eating is safe, when unfortunately, here in Asia and the Pacific (and other parts of the world), sometimes it's not. That's why this year's slogan is "Food safety: prepare for the unexpected".

On this year's World Food Safety Day, June 7, let's all work together to reduce the hazards of unsafe foods. Let's be aware and let's prepare for the unexpected.


Jong-Jin Kim is Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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