FAO/WHO Conference calls for massive efforts to improve food safety in Asia-Pacific

News release

Seremban, Malaysia, 27 May 2004 - Urgent action is needed to prevent and reduce food-borne diseases in Asia and the Pacific, according to a regional conference on food safety attended by representatives of thirty-six countries and territories.

Countries recognize the enormous gap between the scale and cost of food borne illnesses and their capacity to address them, the FAO/WHO regional food safety conference concluded. This gap has increased steadily in the region as a result of rapid population growth, urbanization, changing consumption patterns and expansion of trade. Substantial institutional reforms and financial resources are needed to enable developing countries in Asia-Pacific to fill this gap.

"Asia has become a major exporter of a large range of food products such as rice, poultry and fish. As such, it has to adhere to the increasingly stringent food safety standards of its trading partners, in addition to ensuring safe food for its own consumers. Poorer countries in the region still need assistance in this field", said Ezzeddine Boutrif, FAO senior food quality and standards officer, upon adoption of the report of the conference.

"Food borne diseases remain a serious public health problem in the region and their death toll is unacceptable. For instance, food borne parasitic infections, a significant but often forgotten illness affecting this area in particular, account alone for more than 20 million cases in the region, that is 50 percent of the global burden of this disease", added Peter Ben Embarek, WHO food safety scientist.

In order to reduce the human suffering from food borne diseases, the health costs attached to it, and the disruptions in agricultural trade, 230 participants and observers have recommended attaching top priority to key practical actions to ensure the safety of food.

The key recommendations resulting from this meeting can be summarized as follow:

  • The large majority of countries must urgently mobilize adequate resources, skills and know-how to respond to the burden of illnesses caused by the consumption of unsafe food. In particular, governments must ensure that good practices - including in plant and animal production - which minimize the risk of contamination, are applied by producers, processors and consumers alike.
  • There is a need to establish or strengthen national food borne disease surveillance programmes in each country and facilitate timely inter-country exchange of relevant information, as an initial step towards the creation of regional networks. Such information is a pre-condition for efficient, well-targeted interventions.
  • The rapid development of Asian economies in recent decades has led to the establishment of multiple agencies covering different aspects of the food safety chain, often not well-coordinated, thus hindering an effective handling of the challenges of food safety and rapid response to emergency situations. National agriculture and public health authorities are therefore urged - in close cooperation with other relevant departments - to adopt a well- coordinated, multi-sectorial approach to food safety risk analysis, including assessment, management and communication.
  • Awareness of food safety risks and opportunities to prevent or mitigate food safety hazards must be created throughout societies, from producers to consumers. Governments, as well as the private sector, should therefore engage in large-scale communication and education campaigns.
  • The conference urged countries to regularly review and update national food safety policies and legislation, in line with international standards such as the Codex Alimentarius, and ensure law enforcement.

The conference called upon FAO, WHO and other relevant organizations to support initiatives in addressing the food safety challenge.

The meeting supported the proposed establishment by WHO of the International Network of Food Safety Authorities which allows timely exchange of information between countries and internationals agencies.

The conference also witnessed the launch by FAO of the International Portal for Food Safety, Animal and Plant Health. The portal enables in particular a rapid and authoritative search for current food safety and quality standards, regulations and official materials. The Web site is located at the following URL: http://www.ipfsaph.org

The Seremban conference is part of a series of regional and global meetings under the auspices of FAO and WHO to provide a forum for food safety officials to share information on national experiences in regulating and promoting food safety.

For more information please contact Diderik de Vleeschauwer
FAO information officer, email Diderik.deVleeschauwer@fao.org or (+66)02-697.4126 Cristiana Salvi
WHO public information officer, email csa@who.it or telephone (+39)348 0192305