Foodborne diseases pose a serious threat to densely populated areas of Asia and the Pacific - both to the health of the people living there and to these regions' chances of exporting their products to more developed markets in the west, according to food safety officials meeting in Malaysia this week. The key to solving the problem is to focus on the areas where action is needed most.
"So far, food contamination incidents and foodborne disease outbreaks in the region have been relatively isolated, but the potential danger is just round the corner," said Dr Kerstin Leitner, WHO Assistant Director-General responsible for food safety, speaking at the meeting in Seremban which saw food safety officials and experts from some 40 countries in the region come together under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
An estimated one in three people worldwide suffer annually from a foodborne disease and 1.8 million die from severe food and waterborne diarrhoea, and the Asia-Pacific region has been highlighted as a region at particular risk.
"The danger of food-related outbreaks is particularly acute in Asia and the Pacific, because of the instances in which animals and people live in proximity and the way in which some food is produced and distributed," said Leitner. The recent avian influenza epidemic, for example, was historically unprecedented, she said, and of great concern for human health as well as for agriculture, with 23 fatal human cases and about 100 million birds died or culled.
However, in the region, more than 700,000 people die and many more are debilitated every year from single cases of food- and waterborne disease - single cases that most often do not hit press headlines like the bird 'flu epidemic.
On the trade side, disruptions due to shortcomings in food quality have also been on the increase. "Since 2001, unacceptable pesticide residue levels in fruits and vegetables, Chloramphenicol and other antibiotic residues in seafood and poultry, pathogens in seafood and mycotoxins in crops and peanuts have been the cause of rejection of food export from the Asian region," said Hartwig de Haen, FAO Assistant Director-General for economic and social department.
A ban on fish imports into the EU cost one Asian country $335 million of lost export opportunities, for example, while the export of peanut meal by another Asian country to the European Union dropped by more than $30 million per year after the EU introduced new mycotoxin regulation in the early 1980s.
But recent scandals with life threatening sub-standard or chemical contaminated food are just the tip of the iceberg of a widespread and growing public health problem. They are symptomatic of food safety systems not properly working and of the lack of integrated mechanisms in the region - and often within individual countries - to predict potential outbreaks and organise rapid responses to prevent them, according to the FAO and WHO.
The regional food safety conference was set up in response to the urgent need for countries in the region to work together to develop harmonised and co-ordinated food safety systems resulting in uniform emergency responses to such threats, the UN agencies said.
The conference is part of a series of regional meetings that the FAO and WHO are jointly organising to meet the needs of member countries for policy guidance and capacity building in food safety. A practical action plan is expected to emerge from the meeting to help the region overcome the difficulties and problems it faces in improving food safety, including surveillance and response systems.
Particular attention will be devoted to covering the full food production chain, although there will be a special focus on the segments that are best suited for interventions to lower significantly the foodborne disease risk. The meeting is also designed to encourage improved communication among scientists, regulators, and industry and consumer representatives in an effort to promote such risk reduction, which has been possible in other regions.
Participants in the Asia Pacific Regional Food Safety Conference come largely from regulatory bodies for food safety in the Ministries of Agriculture and Health of FAO and WHO member countries. Representatives of independent food safety agencies and other ministries with responsibilities for food safety, and international Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) representing industry, producers, trade and retail associations, and consumer groups are also attending.