Regional health agency is stressing the need to keep food safe

Food contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or harmful chemicals causes over 200 diseases, from diarrhea to cancer. To raise awareness and promote preventive action throughout the food chain, the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization is focusing its 2015 World Health Day campaign on the issue of food safety.

“From farm to plate, keep it safe” is this year’s slogan for World Health Day, observed annually to mark the anniversary of World Health’s founding in 1948.

“Diseases caused by contaminated food are a serious problem for people’s health and can jeopardize our countries’ development, trade and tourism,” said Carissa F. Etienne.

“In the Americas, with our abundant food production, we can prevent most of these illnesses with strong food safety systems,” she said. She is director of the  Pan American Health Organization.

Globally, over 582 million people fall ill and more than 350,000 die annually from food borne illnesses including salmonellosis, gastrointestinal disease, Escherichia coli infection, said the organization. These illnesses result from eating unsafe foods such as undercooked meat, fruits and vegetables contaminated with feces or pesticides, and raw seafood containing marine biotoxins, it added.

Globalization has increased the interconnectedness of the world’s food chains and, in parallel, the number, frequency and sites of food borne illnesses, aid the organization. Rapid urbanization has also magnified the risks, as people eat more food prepared outside the home, which is not always properly prepared and handled, it added.

In the Americas, about one in four people suffers an episode of food borne illness each year, the organization said, adding that children, pregnant women, immunosuppressed persons, and older adults are the most vulnerable.

“Rapid identification of outbreaks of food borne diseases and timely and coordinated response are crucial for minimizing the impact of these outbreaks on the population’s health and on countries’ economies,” said Enrique Pérez, the organization’s senior advisor on Food borne diseases.

While there are no estimates of the total costs (including medical care, drugs and lost work hours) of these diseases at the regional level, the available data indicate $700,000 to $19 million in annual health costs in Caribbean countries and more than $77 million in the United States, the organization estimated.

Food can become contaminated at any point in the food chain, so everyone along that chain must take measures to keep food safe, from producers to processors, retailers and consumers, the organization said.

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