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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

World Health Day Shines Spotlight on Food Safety

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Drawing attention to the fierce urgency to advance overall food safety and reduce the devastating impact of food borne illnesses around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) dedicated the 2015 World Health Day to Food Safety. To support these efforts, the Laureate International Universities hosted a special webinar as part of its annual activities to mark World Health Day. During the webinar, Constance Shumba, a public health faculty at the University of Roehampton (London) and I explored the potential impact of FSMA on the global food supply with a case study on how the people and government of Uganda are advancing food safety in the sub-Saharan African country.

Globally, more than 2.2 million people, most of whom are children, die of foodborne and waterborne diarrheal diseases annually. In the United States alone, the CDC estimates that 48 million people become ill from food borne diseases each year. About 128,000 of these individuals are hospitalized, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths. The overall annual U.S. economic burden due to food borne illnesses is estimated to cost $77.7 billion.

These grim statistics illustrate the necessity to overhaul the outdated U.S. food safety system. FSMA is the most significant statutory change to both human and animal food safety in more than 70 years (since the passage of the Food Safety & Cosmetic Act of 1938). It is a radical shift from FDA’s previously reactive approach to a more robust, proactive scientific and risk-based prevention-oriented system. When fully implemented in 2016, the most important impact of FSMA will be to ensure that contaminated foods as well as those containing unwholesome or adulterated ingredients never reach retailers and consumers. Interestingly, FSMA may also positively affect the global food supply chain as it drives the improvement of food safety practices around the world, especially in countries that export food and food products to the United States.

Several provisions of FSMA will affect food exporters to the United States both in terms of reshaping their local food safety policies to align with the new law and the resulting improvement in food safety practices. Some of the areas of potential impact include:

  • Foreign Supplier Verification Program
  • Effective Traceability and Recall Program
  • Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Control (HARPC) System
  • Documentation and Record Keeping Inspections
  • Sanitary Transportation Rule for Human and Animal Foods
  • Produce Safety Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption.

Notably, regulatory agencies of major U.S. trading partners are in the process of updating their food safety laws to ensure that local food productions remain in compliance with FSMA. Canada, Mexico, China and Australia are among the countries that are proactively working with their U.S. counterparts to ensure compliance and uninterrupted food exports to U.S. markets. Overall, it will be easier for developed economies with fairly robust food safety regulatory policies to upgrade and catch up with the new FSMA requirements.

Developing nations will be the hardest hit, as an extensive overhaul may be required to meet FSMA regulations. In the face of poor infrastructures, these countries may struggle when upgrading their systems to achieve compliance and maintain a certain level of trade relations with the United States, not just in raw materials or unprocessed food and food products, but also in valued-added food exports. Despite these challenges, these countries are motivated to remain trusted U.S. food-trading partners and will most likely improve their food safety policies and practices, thus helping to make the global food supply safer.

Uganda is an example of a developing country that is making serious efforts to improve its food safety policies and programs. The country is working on its Food and Drug Act of 1964 and its subsequent Drug Act of 1993 to develop a modern and unified National Food Safety Law. To make the global food supply safer through FSMA, the United States must collaborate with its trading partners around the world in building and upgrading their food safety systems. This would be beneficial to U.S. companies doing business in foreign countries either in terms of manufacturing their own private food labels or simply in assisting local industries in these countries in growing, processing and packaging food and food products destined for the U.S. market. It would also help these countries upgrade their food safety laws, improve export capabilities, and balance trade with the United States, consequently making food safer for their own citizens.

During the webinar we also emphasized the need to focus on the family kitchen in improving food safety practices around the world, using the five WHO key principles to a safer quality food:

  • Keep clean—engage in proper washing of hands and food contact surfaces
  • Cook food thoroughly to the required temperatures
  • Separate raw and ready-to-eat (RTE) foods to avoid cross-contamination
  • Keep food at safe temperatures to ensure that hot food remains hot and cold food remains cold at all times
  • Use safe water and raw materials to avoid cross-contamination

We all agreed that the culture of food safety must start in the home and at a very early stage in life and from there, spread to our schools, and public and private institutions. Food companies must do all that is necessary to uphold the integrity of the highly profitable food industry by delivering safe quality food to their customers. Overall, the global food supply chain will be made safer with a considerable reduction in food borne illnesses, and chemical or physical adulteration of foods.

The webinar referenced in this column, “From Farm to Fork – A Public Health Perspective”, can be found on the Walden University (Minneapolis) website.

Okenu is also affiliated with Walden University as a contributing professor in public health