First International Food Safety Conference highlights need for global partnership

The first International Food Safety Conference kicked off this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with participating world leaders hoping to promote greater global cooperation surrounding sustainability and unsafe food.

The conference was organized by the African Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO). Representatives from around 130 countries are attending the two-day event.

According to WHO, the yearly global figures for foodborne illness are 600 million people sick, with 420,000 losing their lives. These numbers include people affected by food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals. These issues, WHO points out, don’t just impact the food industry, but also can overwhelm healthcare systems, trade, tourism and the overall economy.

“Food should be a source of nourishment and enjoyment, not a cause of disease or death,” said WHO’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, but has not received the political attention it deserves. Ensuring people have access to safe food takes sustained investment in stronger regulations, laboratories, surveillance and monitoring.”

Global food safety looks to be an important topic in 2019. Ahead of the conference, the Global Food Safety Partnership drew attention to the need for increased funding for Africa’s domestic food safety system, saying that donor investment in food safety is four times lower than that for malaria control, both significant health concerns on the continent.

WHO has identified food safety as “one of the most important issues its member states need to address,” and has been visiting countries to evaluate the state of their food safety systems. The organization visited Iraq last month at the request of the country’s Ministries of Health and Environment to assess food safety obstacles nationwide, recommending laws, regulations and other policy moves for foodborne illness surveillance, monitoring, emergency preparedness and finances.

Participants in the ongoing conference — including ministers of agriculture, health and trade, as well as scientists, consumer representatives, food producers and more — aim to identify the key actions that must be taken to ensure safe food, with a focus on teamwork among higher political levels.

“There is no food security without food safety,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “This conference is a great opportunity for the international community to strengthen political commitments and engage in key actions. Safeguarding our food is a shared responsibility. We must all play our part.”

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