September 28, 2016 | By Marcus Glassman

Food Safety: The Universal Issue

When we think of the food system we need to feed the world in 2050—the kind of transformations we need in science and production to feed more than 9 billion people—those ideas, though enormous, are often abstract. It can be difficult, sitting in the United States, or in other developed countries, to appreciate the scale of the youth bulge in Africa and South Asia, or to understand the speed of progress being made in research and development. But if there is one thing that people do understand—tangibly, and personally—about what the global food system means to them, to their dinner, to the food on their plate this very moment, it’s food safety.

Food safety is that unique facet of the global food system that directly affects individuals in real time. Capital investments made today in agricultural research may transform the way food and agriculture sectors of the economy function 30 years from now, but chicken that was mishandled at a poultry processing plant yesterday can make you, or your family, ill today. And in a globalized food system, where grocery stores in even the most remote areas of the world are stocked with imports and processed food whose ingredients may be sourced from a dozen nations—suddenly things become a lot more complicated.  

In 2012, a hygiene oversight at a tuna processing facility in Aroor, India, resulted in the hospitalization of 55 Americans with salmonellosis. In 2013, three separate outbreaks of Hepatitis A, all linked to berries from different sources, sickened over 400 people in 16 countries in the European Union and Switzerland. It took until 2014 for epidemiologists working with European disease surveillance networks to untangle the sources of the illnesses and to distinguish that there had been three small—not one large—outbreaks. And this is a simple example: imagine a contaminated batch of spices—black pepper, for example, added to almost everything—shipped from a single port of origin to multiple suppliers, in multiple countries. Each supplier sells to multiple distributors. Each distributor to multiple companies. Each company manufactures multiple brands. Each brand, dozens of foods. Typically there are food safety controls along the supply chain, but should something fail, you can see how figuring out what went wrong can get complicated quickly.

This complexity is just the forerunner: the real concern is the burden of disease. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people—that’s about one in six—is sickened by a foodborne illness annually, of whom 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. Globally, the burden is even higher, and harder to measure. The World Health Organization’s Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) released the first ever global burden of foodborne disease estimates in 2015, finding that in 2010, there were 600 million global cases of foodborne illness, and 420,000 deaths—of whom one third were children under five.  

This burden is not borne equally. Geographically, the greatest burden of illness is in Sub-Saharan Africa and the South and Southeast Asia. Worst of all, the greatest burden of all is borne by children: 30 percent of global deaths from foodborne illness are children under five, a demographic that only makes up 9 percent of the world population. Children, especially children in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, bear more than three times their share of global mortality.

So what do we do about this?

For one, governments and companies, national and multinational, are giving the issue attention with renewed focus. Food companies increasingly live or die based on their reputations, and food safety is an integral point in this—look no further than Chipotle’s woes in the US market over the past year to see how detrimental even the perception of a food safety issue can be. Nationally, countries like the United States are changing the way they look at food safety. The Food Safety Modernization Act, currently being implemented in the US, changes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s impetus on food safety from reaction to prevention. Internationally, the World Bank, among others, and in-part spurred on by new US regulations, is changing the way exports are examined, and working to harmonize regulatory standards for what constitutes “safe food.” It’s complicated work, but from our best measures, it’s starting to pay off.

In short, there’s an interconnectedness between eaters in every nation through food safety: no one is immune from the very real, human, impacts of foodborne illness. As the food and agriculture system transforms to feed more than 9 billion by 2050, this system of expanding supply chains, of growing integration, means the impact from failure to secure food safety anywhere is increasingly, pressingly, a risk for outbreak everywhere. What happens at the farm gate over there really does have a real and measurable impact tableside over here. And while elements of our changing food and agriculture system may seem abstract, what it means for food safety is real, tangible, and happening now. It all raises the question: how has food safety impacted you? And how do you see food safety changing as the world’s food system grows and integrates? Let us know: @GlobalAgDev 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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