The Chicago Council’s campaign, “Healthy Food for a Healthy World,” builds awareness about the important role food can play in promoting health and alleviating malnutrition. We publish a blog post weekly exploring these issues and the series will culminate in the release of a new Chicago Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2015 on April 16. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live steam on April 16.
By Louise Iverson, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Food safety plays a critical role in good nutrition. Even if people eat healthy foods, contamination can hamper absorption of the nutrients, and the contaminants in food often do more harm than the good food provides. Food safety continues to prove to be a challenge for developed and developing countries, and unsafe food is linked to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people each year. As supply chains become increasingly globalized, food safety threats will continue to stretch beyond regions and affect the food security of people across borders. In the effort to ensure that everyone worldwide has access to a nutritious diet, every facet of the global food chain must consider the safety of food to be an essential component of nutrition.
Much of our food becomes contaminated before it leaves the farm gate. Mycotoxins are carcinogens produced by fungi that develop during the harvest, production and storage of grains, nuts, and other crops and have significant impact on human health. They are associated with cancer, and kidney, liver, and immune system disease, and are caused by poor harvesting and storage practices. Aflatoxins, a type of mycotoxin, can lead to stunted growth in children and other diseases through adulthood. Aflatoxins primarily affect maize and peanuts, which are key dietary staples in developing countries. Food supplies in developing countries are also particularly vulnerable, due to poor postharvest storage practices. Mycotoxins are estimated to contaminate as much as one-quarter of all agricultural harvests worldwide.
Foodborne illnesses also inhibit nutrition and health, particularly in developing countries due to unclean water being used to clean and process food, poor processing and storage practices, and weak regulatory systems. As a result, foodborne illness is a significant cause of mortality worldwide, particularly among infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly and others with weak immune systems. An estimated 1.9 million children die annually due to diarrheal disease, to which foodborne illness is a major contributor.
But foodborne illness is not limited to low-income countries: In the United States, foodborne diseases lead to 76 million people getting sick and 5,000 deaths annually. In China, food safety issues have plagued the food industry and unnerved consumers, including a 2008 scandal when 300,000 infants were sickened by contaminated milk laced with melanine.
In order to ensure that diets are healthy and nutritious, especially in low-income countries that lack infrastructure, technology, and other inputs to effectively harvest and store to prevent contamination, it will be crucial for governments, scientists, industry leaders, and health advocates to work together to addresses the causes of unsafe food. For these reasons, food safety is the theme of World Health Day 2015, during which the World Health Organization will be advocating for food safety, from farm to plate, around the world:
Simple processing improvements in the global food chain can greatly reduce the risks of contaminated food and foodborne illnesses, such as investments in storage facilities, diagnostic tools, and training for farmers on how to prevent contamination. Through collaborative efforts to improve food safety along the supply chain, we can ensure that nutritious foods are also safe to eat.
- Bhat, Ramesh V., and Siruguri Vasanthi. “Mycotoxin Food Safety Risk in Developing Countries.” In Food Safety in Food Security and Food Trade, 2020 Vision for Food Agriculture, and the Environment Focus 10, edited by Laurian J. Unnevehr. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2003.
- Cardwell, K. F., et al. Mycotoxins: The Cost of Achieving Food Security and Food Quality. Saint Paul: APS, 2001.
- Chan, Margaret. “Food safety must accompany food and nutrition security.” Lancet 384, no. 9958 (2014): 1910-11.
- Jacobs, Andrew. “Chinese Release Increased Numbers in Tainted Milk Scandal.” New York Times, December 2, 2008.
- Lewis, Lauren, et al. “Aflatoxin Contamination of Commercial Maize Products During an Outbreak of Acute Aflatoxicosis in Eastern and Central Kenya.” Environmental Health Perspectives 113, no. 12 (2005): 1763-67.
- Milićević, Dragan R., Marija Škrinjar, and Tatjana Baltić. “Real and Perceived Risks for Mycotoxin Contamination in Foods and Feeds: Challenges for Food Safety Control.” Toxins 2, no. 4 (2010): 572-92.
- Smith, J. E., and G. L. Solomons. Mycotoxins in Human Nutrition and Health. Brussels: European Commission CG XII, 1994.
- World Health Organization (WHO). WHO Initiative to Estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases: A summary document. Geneva: WHO, 2008.
- ———. “World Health Day 2015: Food safety.” Accessed April 6, 2015.
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