Feeding the world requires more than a spoonful of safety

02/14/05

EAST LANSING, Mich. While the United States battles an obesity epidemic, millions around the world are starving or malnourished a population already at increased risk of foodborne disease. Fighting hunger goes hand in hand with the fight against foodborne disease, urges a Michigan State University researcher.

When production of food goes up on a mass scale, something in the food system even the smallest problem can exacerbate on a large scale and a large amount of people can be affected by foodborne disease, says Ewen C.D. Todd, director of the National Food Safety & Toxicology Center at MSU. Increased demand for food and the whirlwind of trade to meet the demand for the export markets carries an invisible price tag in some cases, the loss of land to produce the food, and in other cases higher risk for food contamination for both local and exported foods.

"When we look at the question of feeding the world, we also have to take into account providing safe food," Todd says. Among the concerns that affect food safety: storage, transportation, production, worker hygiene, trade and food laws, new pathogens, antibiotic resistance, natural disasters, vendor/retail sanitation among others.

Todd spoke today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in a symposium entitled "Can We Feed the World Without Poisoning the Earth?"

Todd spoke alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug and Charles Benbrook, who was an invited speaker at the First World Congress on Organic Food, organized by the National Food Safety & Toxicology Center at MSU this past March.

During his talk, Todd focused on microbial contamination of food in and from countries that face problems of hunger. Microbial hazards are not diminishing and food contamination is a problem in both developing and developed countries that needs more attention, he says.

"We need new approaches to food control, particularly centralized food safety policies that each country understands and increased surveillance to track the source of the problems," Todd says. "The goal of fighting hunger and foodborne disease is achievable, but it will take planning and vision."

Worldwide, approximately 1.5 billion episodes of diarrhea occur annually in children under the age of five, resulting in some 1.8 million deaths. Estimates are that up to 70 percent of diarrheal episodes may be caused by foodborne contaminants, Todd says.

There are examples of positive change, says Todd, pointing to the food safety strategy of Ghana to control pathogens in fresh fruits and vegetables through the use of pre-cooling trucks to ship and store the food. He also points to the Codex Alimentarius Commission as a way of standardizing food safety standards through its international emphasis on encouraging fair international trade in food while promoting the health and economic interest of consumers. Todd is leading the only dedicated Food Safety Policy Center, which is examining U.S. and international food safety policies and standards.

"One of the dilemmas facing food production is the increasing demand for stricter standards, which make it more difficult for developing countries to produce food for export. Food safety has become critical in international trade discussions following the establishment of the SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) agreement in 1995. Since then, regulations in developed countries have become increasingly comprehensive and stringent, in some cases restricting trade or significantly increasing the costs of food exports from many developing countries," Todd says.

Education is a major tool in the fight against foodborne disease, Todd urges, and he supports the annual MSU International Short Course in Food Safety, a two-week course designed for working professionals in developing countries to learn how to apply food safety policies and technologies to their own countries from U.S. experts and from fellow students.

In addition, five conferences organized by the National Food Safety & Toxicology Center have yielded valuable education and policy tools in the form of conference proceedings. All information is available online at www.foodsafe.msu.edu

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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