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Food Safety, Defense, and Microbiology

F Kaferstein, World Health Organization, Wiesbaden, Germany

2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

In a number of holy books, religious proscriptions for handling food contributed to food safety. In addition, many
centuries ago, some governments already recognized that they had responsibilities in this domain and many laws were
enacted to ensure the purity of certain foods. But it was only at the end of the nineteenth century, following
scientic developments in the eld of microbiology and other areas of food science, that modern food regulatory activities
In 1948, the availability, accessibility, and affordability of food were recognized as a basic human right by the United
Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25, 1948). Implicit in this concept is the assumption that the
food is rst and foremost safe to consume, i.e., absence of health-damaging properties. It is therefore not surprising that in
the same year, the World Health Organization (WHO) was established as a specialized agency of the United Nations with
a broad health mandate that included the specic responsibility to develop, establish and promote international standards
with respect to foody. Subsequently in 1963, WHO together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations established an intergovernmental body to develop international standards for food the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Today Codex stands as a major achievement in the promotion of food safety worldwide with an extensive collection of
health and safety recommendations for food that are internationally recognized and referenced by the World Trade Organization and its member countries.
Thirty-two years ago, in 1983, WHO, again jointly with FAO, convened an Expert Committee on Food Safety to review the global
food safety situation and provide guidance for governments, the food industry, and consumers on how to cope with the inherent
hazards and risks of our food supply. Based on available data and evidence at the time, the committee concluded that illness due to
contaminated food is perhaps the most widespread health problem in the contemporary world and an important cause of reduced
economic productivity.
Unfortunately, this rather alarming statement appears to be still true today. Recent studies examining the morbidity and
mortality of foodborne diseases have conrmed the signicant public health burden posed by these diseases. In developed
countries, one-quarter to one-third of the population are made ill each year because of foodborne diseases. In the developing
world, the burden is much more severe. For example, diarrheal diseases are now estimated to cause 2.43 million deaths
a year. According to WHO statistics, this is the second leading cause of mortality in low-income countries and kills more
people than human immunodeciency virus infection/acquired immunodeciency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), malaria, or
In addition, the large number of food safety crises, which occur with increasing frequency, is contributing to the growing public
demand for better health protection from contaminated food. This has prompted governments to strengthen their food safety legislation, improve capacities and infrastructure, and tighten control measures. Examples of governmental measures include the creation of European Food Safety Agency by the European Union in 2002, the Food Safety Modernization Act in the United States of
2011 and, most recently, 2013, the commitment of the Premier of the Peoples Republic of China, Mr Li Keqiang, to act with an iron
st to improve food safety.
These positive developments are, unfortunately, contrasted by the fact that in many other countries, mostly developing
countries, food safety does not receive the attention it deserves. In this regard, the medical profession and public health
community appear to be slow in accepting the role that contaminated food plays in the epidemiology of diarrhea, particularly in infants and young children. The treatment of hospitalized cases and outpatients is rarely seen as an opportunity for
educating patients and their families on why foodborne diseases occur and how they can be prevented. Two publications
published in WHOs Bulletin in 1993 and 2003 urged the health sector to take steps to correct this oversight. Yet even today,
progress has been disappointing. For example, in the 2009, United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) and WHO published
a document entitled Diarrhea: Why children are still dying and what can be done, that again overlooked food safety as one
of the most important interventions for these diseases. Consequently, in a recent publication in a prestigious Medical Journal
of Gastroenterology, the issue had to be raised again and omission corrected. It can only be hoped that the public health and
donor communities will eventually adopt a more holistic approach for the prevention of diarrheal diseases, which includes
essential food safety interventions.

Further Reading
Constitution of the World Health Organization, 2003. Chapter II Functions, Article 2 (u); in Basic Documents, forty fourth ed. WHO, Geneva.
FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Safety, 1984. The Role of Food Safety in Health and Development. Report of a FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Safety, Technical Report
Series No 705. World Health Organization, Geneva.
Kferstein, F.K., 2003. Food safety: the fourth pillar in the strategy to prevent infant diarrhea. Bull. W.H.O. 81, 842843.

Reference Module in Food Sciences

Food Safety, Defense, and Microbiology

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WHO/UNICEF, 2009. Diarrhoea: Why Children Are Still Dying and What Can Be Done. Available at:
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