Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases Highlights Need to Ensure Food Safety

A food secure world is one where there is a steady supply of nutritious, safe and accessible food for all. When conditions for food security are not met, problems arise and the most vulnerable sectors of society suffer.

One such problem is brought about by unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causing more than 200 diseases—ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. Foodborne diseases are responsible for the death of 125,000 children under the age of 5 around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the recently published “WHO Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases,” the WHO reports that annually, as many as 600 million, or almost 1 in 10 people in the world, fall ill after consuming contaminated food. Of these, 420,000 people die.

The report presents the first global and regional estimates of the burden of foodborne diseases. The large disease burden from food highlights the importance of food safety, particularly in Africa, South-East Asia and other regions. Despite the data gaps and limitations of these initial estimates, it is clear that the global burden of foodborne diseases is considerable, and affects individuals of all ages, particularly young children and those living in low-income regions of the world.

Click here to see the global statistics.

“Unsafe food puts each one of us at risk, regardless of where we are in the world,” said Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the WHO's Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses, in his commentary following the publication of the report. “These illnesses are preventable. WHO has long worked to improve access to adequate, safe and nutritious food for everyone, particularly those most vulnerable to foodborne diseases,” he added.

Foodborne diseases can cause short-term symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea (commonly referred to as food poisoning), but can also cause longer-term illnesses, such as cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain and neural disorders. These diseases may be more serious in children, pregnant women and those who are older or have a weakened immune system. Children who survive some of the more serious foodborne diseases may suffer from delayed physical and mental development, impacting their quality of life permanently.

According to the report, the risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation.

Dr. Miyagishima pointed out that by incorporating the report’s estimates into policy development at both national and international levels, all stakeholders can contribute to improvements in safety throughout the food chain. These results will also help to direct future research activities.

“WHO has been working closely with governments to improve surveillance and reporting of foodborne diseases, to obtain a clearer picture of unique local challenges. This work, along with the global report, will support policy makers to put the right strategies in place to prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks,” adds Dr. Miyagishima.

In his conclusion, Dr. Miyagishima said he hopes that this new information will foster increased political attention and spur collective action to improve food safety, help protect those who are most vulnerable, and ultimately deliver reductions in these preventable illnesses, disabilities and deaths.

Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, and foodborne diseases can impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade.

Good collaboration between governments, producers and consumers helps ensure food safety. The industry, for its part, recognises that the best way to tackle food safety effectively on a global scale is through multi-sectoral partnerships.

Food Industry Asia (FIA) recognises the power of partnership to scale up food safety capacity, to protect food supply chains for the benefit of consumers, businesses and governments in the region. Recently, FIA signed an agreement with the World Bank for the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) to help scale up food safety capacity building in China and the ASEAN region. This unique global partnership aims to drive a joined-up food safety agenda, especially in China, where there is a real opportunity to build a strong food safety culture between the government and the food industry.

Since the creation of the GFSP in 2012, FIA has worked to ensure that this initiative is well-informed and responsive to the needs of the food and beverage sector in Asia. This agreement signals an important milestone in the private sector’s commitment to invest in a strong food safety culture in the region.

Over the last five years, FIA has worked with other industry partners to provide significant input into shaping the future of investments in food safety competency development. This includes upgrading regulatory systems to meet internationally recognised standards.

Mr. Matt Kovac, Executive Director at FIA says: “FIA’s goal is to stimulate effective multi-stakeholder collaboration in Asia to deliver a positive impact for society. By working together, we know that companies, governments and academic experts can be greater than the sum of their parts. Together, we can join forces to strengthen supply chains, reduce foodborne illnesses and drive economic growth and prosperity by fostering a safe food culture.”

Everyone has a role to play in preventing foodborne diseases and ensuring that food is safe. From simple and basic principles, such as regular handwashing and proper handling of food, up to the herculean task of ensuring safety across the food supply chain; various sectors and organisations are doing their part and continuously building their capacities toward the common goal of food safety. More importantly, with the publication of the “WHO Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases” report, governments and the food industry can now make use of reliable data that show the human costs of unsafe and contaminated food to come up with targeted policies and actions.