By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia
On World Food Safety Day, the WHO South-East Asia Region calls for intensified whole-of-society efforts to prevent, detect and manage the risk of foodborne disease (FBD). Globally, nearly 600 million people fall sick and 420 000 people die every year due to consumption of unsafe food. The Region contributes a quarter of the global burden of FBD morbidity and nearly 42% of FBD mortality. Safe food is critical to promoting health and ending hunger, two of the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The use of antimicrobials in farm animals is a major contributor to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – a health and development threat, and one of the Region’s eight Flagship Priorities. The theme of this year’s celebration, “Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow”, highlights the benefits of safe food production and consumption for people, the planet and economies. Food safety is everyone’s business. We must all do our part.
The Region has in recent years achieved sustained, multisectoral progress to enhance food safety. All Member States have established a National Codex Committee to advise government on Codex standards, codes of practice and guidelines. The Region continues to apply a “One Health” approach to food safety, spearheaded by the regional tripartite mechanism, which brings together WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The Region continues to implement a new Framework for Action on Food Safety, which was launched last year, amid the ongoing pandemic response. The Framework highlights the need for all countries in the Region to develop a national policy and strategic plan on food safety. It underscores the value of ongoing monitoring and evaluation of national food control systems.
Importantly, the Framework highlights the increasingly acute risk of FBD outbreaks and other systemic shocks. The world’s food systems are fragile. Food ingredients often come from multiple countries, with each item having travelled thousands of kilometres from a field, farm or factory. Contamination at one end of the food chain can affect populations on the other side of the world. Though COVID-19 has not been transmitted by food, the pandemic has sharpened focus on food safety-related issues, from hygiene, AMR, and zoonotic diseases, to climate change, food fraud and the potential benefits of digitalizing food systems. In line with the Region’s Flagship Priority on strengthening emergency risk management, it is imperative that countries in the Region step up and secure food systems, ensuring they can guard against and meet all challenges.
This year’s World Food Safety Day makes several calls to action. First, to governments: Ensure it’s safe. Prioritize whole-of-government action on food safety and build sustainable food systems that provide safe, nutritious and sufficient food for all. Second, to agriculture and food producers: Grow it safe. Adopt best practices that promote food safety. Use antimicrobials only when appropriate. Third, to business operators: Keep it safe. Safely store and handle food and strengthen food safety management systems. Fourth, to consumers: Know it’s safe. Learn about safe and healthy food and how you can consume it. Fifth, to all people in all sectors of society: Team up for food safety. Food safety is a shared responsibility, to which we must all contribute.
Every opportunity should be grasped. In September, as part of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN will hold its first ever Food Systems Summit. The Summit will provide a global platform to promote high-level political commitment and concrete actions towards food system transformation, including on food safety. The participation and voice of Member States in the Region will be essential to achieve the necessary outcomes, and for the Summit to serve as a turning point in the world’s journey to fulfil the SDGs. WHO will continue to provide Member States its full support, including through its role as the anchor UN agency for Action Track Two – promoting and creating demand for healthy and sustainable diets, and reducing waste.
We can – and must – deliver. Food systems touch every aspect of human existence. Building food systems that are safe and sustainable, and which work for the benefit of all, has a positive impact far beyond health, driving progress in all areas of development, from ending poverty, to increasing access to safe and clean water and reducing greenhouse emissions. In the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, it must be a core priority. On World Food Safety Day, WHO calls on all stakeholders, at all steps of the food chain, to contribute towards a Region and world in which sufficient, safe, and nutritious food is accessible to all, leaving no one behind. For a healthier, more health-secure future, together we must act.