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Five keys to food safety

Reports highlight the ongoing need for improving food safety throughout food supply chains, especially basic hygiene practices to prevent bacterial cross-contamination.

Reports highlight the ongoing need for improving food safety throughout food supply chains, especially basic hygiene practices to prevent bacterial cross-contamination.

Every year, millions of people globally suffer from food-borne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalised and thousands die. In the EU, over 320,000 human cases are reported each year, but the real number is likely to be much higher.

Reports produced jointly by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control highlight the ongoing need for improving food safety throughout food supply chains, especially basic hygiene practices to prevent bacterial cross-contamination.

Food can become contaminated at many different steps: on the farm, in processing or distribution facilities, during transit, at retail and food service establishments and in the home. Over the years, we have made progress to prevent both intentional and unintentional contamination of food at each of these steps.

Much of our food is produced by large farms in a variety of countries and much of it is now processed industrially and sold in supermarkets and multi-national food outlets. This trade and globalisation of the food supply has allowed an improved choice and supply of foods for the consumer.

On the other hand, food globalisation has resulted in foods being transported across borders and continents. This raises the number of critical points at which contamination of foods can occur. We are all aware that almost at any stage of production, processing and transportation, food can become contaminated with unwanted pathogens or chemicals.

Other factors contribute to food hazards, including changes in consumer dietary patterns, changes in industry practices, changes in population demographics and evolving pathogens. This existing burden is compounded by the effects of climate change, which can increase the incidence of food-borne diseases because of the faster growth rates of micro-organisms in food and water at higher temperatures, potentially resulting in higher levels of toxins or pathogens in food.

These factors pose challenges that are requiring us to adapt our current food protection strategies. A coordinated system that uses the best available science to stop and prevent food-borne illness offers the best protection against morbidity and possibly mortality. This is achieved through surveillance, monitoring, tracing and sharing of information between those concerned about the required action and protection of general public health.

The Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit within the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Directorate is responsible for investigating cases of suspected or confirmed food-borne illness.

Each case is investigated by a public health specialist and possible sources are identified, investigated and control actions taken in collaboration with the Environmental Health Directorate. By immediate control measures, further outbreaks can be prevented. As part of the prevention measures on food-borne illness, awareness campaigns are organised to encourage consumers and food handlers to take up safe food-handling practices.

The Environmental Health Directorate ensures that the objectives of the food laws are achieved. Computerised systems for risk-based inspections of food establishments have been adopted. The directorate’s laboratory, an essential component of the food safety control system, is also ISO accredited. Furthermore, enforcement officials continuously receive training comparable to recent developments.

As food safety issues are international, so must be the solutions. All sectors must be engaged, given that risks to food safety may originate in any link of the food production chain. A prerequisite for food safety is an efficient multi-sectoral collaboration between all relevant partners at an international and national level, with systematic mainstreaming of food safety into food systems, nutrition policies and interventions. This is the function of the Food Safety Commission, which is a government coordinating body established under the Food Safety Act of 2002 to coordinate food safety-related matters and reports to and advises the Health Minister.

The outgoing WHO director general, Dr Margaret Chan, said: “Sometimes very simple messages and measures can have a big impact on health protection. These five keys to safer food have already contributed to the prevention of food-borne illness and deserve to be communicated more widely.”

The five keys are: keep hands and surfaces/equipment clean; separating raw and cooked food; cooking thoroughly; keeping food at safe temperatures; and using safe water and raw materials.

For more information, contact the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Directorate on 2326 6000 or the Environmental Health Directorate on 2133 7333.

Dr Charmaine Gauci is superintendent of public health.

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