Today is the second anniversary of the World Food Safety Day, a day established by the United Nations (UN) to draw attention to food safety both in terms of “Food Security”, meant as access to food resources, and in terms of “Food Safety ”, with regard to the quality and hygienic-sanitary safety of food.

Unsafe food can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals that are responsible for over 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to tumors. Unsafe food creates a vicious circle of diseases and malnutrition that particularly affects young children, the elderly and people affected by pre-existing diseases.

World Health Organization (WHO) data warn that 600 million people suffer from food-borne illnesses every year, 420,000 – of which 125,000 are children – die because of them.

Food-borne diseases, also known as food infections, are pathologies contracted through deteriorated or contaminated food.  They can be caused by pathogenic microorganisms that colonize and infect the intestinal mucous membranes, by the ingestion of food contaminated by these microorganisms, by the presence of toxins of microbial origin in food, or from the intake of naturally toxic foods, such as poisonous mushrooms or some types of seafood.

We can distinguish three types of food-borne diseases:

  • Food Infections: due to the consumption of food containing living pathogenic microorganisms that have direct action on the intestinal mucosa (e.g. Salmonella).
  • Food toxinfections: due to the consumption of food containing both bacteria and toxins (preformed or developed from living cells ingested with the food) (e.g. Clostridium perfringens).
  • Food intoxications: due to the consumption of food containing toxins produced by microorganisms that have multiplied on the food prior to its consumption. The microorganism may also not be present in the ingested food: toxicity is given precisely by toxins (e.g. Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium botulinum).

The incubation period varies from a few hours to a few days; the symptoms mainly affect the gastrointestinal system (nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, but also fever and chills) and they have a duration that varies from a few hours (mild) to several days (severe) manifesting in more severe forms in the most sensitive sections of the population, i.e. children, the elderly, immunosuppressed people and pregnant women.

The course of the disease is generally limited but some food-borne diseases are associated with long-term chronic effects (for example neurological impacts, among others).

In addition to the directly responsible agent, the factors that contribute to the development of the toxic infection are contamination through the use of utensils and/or dirty surfaces, the handling of raw food, the lack of knowledge and/or attention by those who prepare the food, and the duration/temperature of food storage which, if not optimal, favor the multiplication of potential microorganisms.

The modalities of transmission of pathogenic microorganisms are:

  • Direct contamination: from sick man/animal or healthy carriers to healthy man (who gets sick);
  • Indirect contamination: by vehicles (inanimate mediums: water, ice, dishes, containers or other contaminated objects) or vectors (animated mediums: flies, mosquitoes, mice, etc.);
  • Cross contamination: from infected food to healthy food, which is therefore contaminated (due to incorrect behaviour during the handling of the food).

Food from uncertain sources, mixing already cooked food to raw, bad personal hygiene of those who handle the food and related equipment (utensils, tea towels, etc.) are responsible for contamination. The incorrect preparation of food, the method and temperature of conservation (dangerous between 5-60 ° C), as well as the increase in the number of days between the preparation and consumption of food cause the multiplication of the microorganism which survives in raw or undercooked food (insufficient temperatures and / or inadequate times).

Other factors that condition the growth and multiplication of pathogenic microorganisms in food are the presence or absence of oxygen and water and the degree of acidity (dangerous pH between 6.5-7.5 but yeasts and molds are capable of grow with pH values even lower than 2). 

WHO proposes 5 key points for food safety:

Keep it clean

  • Wash your hands before handling food and often during food preparation.
  • Wash your hands after going to the toilet.
  • Wash and sanitize all surfaces and equipment used for food preparation.
  • Protect kitchen areas and food from insects, pests and other animals.

Separate raw from cooked food

  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods.
  • Use separate equipment and utensils such as knives and cutting boards for handling raw foods.
  • Store food in containers to avoid contact between raw and prepared foods.

Cook thoroughly

  • Cook food thoroughly, especially meat, poultry, eggs and seafood.
  • Bring foods like soups and stews to boiling point to make sure that they have reached 70°C.  For meat and poultry, make sure that juices are clear, not pink.  Ideally, use a thermometer.
  • Reheat cooked food thoroughly.

Keep food at safe temperatures

  • Do not leave cooked food at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Refrigerate promptly all cooked and perishable food (preferably below 5°C).
  • Keep cooked food piping hot (more than 60°C) prior to serving.
  • Do not store food too long even in the refrigerator.
  • Do not thaw frozen food at room temperature.

Use safe water and raw materials

  • Use safe water or treat it to make it safe.
  • Select fresh and wholesome food.
  • Choose foods processed for safety, such as pasteurized milk.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables, especially if eaten raw.
  • Do not use food beyond its expiry date.

In addition to these suggestions, WHO, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has promoted a campaign entitled “Food safety, everyone’s business” to promote global awareness of food safety and to invite countries and governments, the private sector, civil society, United Nations organizations and the general public to act. From production to the table, in fact, everyone has a role to play, in order to ensure that the food we consume is safe and does not cause harm to our health.

A guide has been prepared (“A Guide to World Food Safety Day”) focused on five points for achieving the objectives:

  • Ensure it’s safe. Governments must ensure safe and nutritious food for all. National governments are critical in guaranteeing that we all can eat safe and nutritious food. Policy makers can promote sustainable agriculture and food systems, fostering multi-sectoral collaboration among public health, animal health, agriculture and other sectors. Food safety authorities can manage food safety risks along the entire food chain, including during emergencies. Countries can comply with international standards established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
  • Grow it safely. Agriculture and food producers need to adopt good practices. Farming practices must ensure a sufficient supply of safe food at a global level today while at the same time mitigating climate change and minimizing future environmental impacts for tomorrow. As food production systems transform to adapt to changing conditions, farmers must carefully consider optimal ways to address potential risks to ensure that food is safe. 
  • Keep it safe. Business operators must make sure food is safe. Preventive controls can address most of food safety problems. Everyone involved in food operations – from processing to retail – must ensure compliance with programmes like HACCP, a system that identifies, evaluates and controls hazards which are significant for food safety from primary production to final consumption. Additionally, good processing, storage and preservation help retain nutritional value as well as reduce post-harvest losses.
  • Eat it safe. All consumers have a right to safe, healthy and nutritious food. Consumers have the power to drive change. They need to be empowered to make healthy food choices for themselves and support sustainable food systems for the planet. Given the complexity of food safety, consumers need access to timely, clear and reliable information about the nutritional and disease risks associated with their food choices. Unsafe food and unhealthy dietary choices swell the global burden of disease.
  • Team up for safety. Food safety is a shared responsibility. The diverse group that shares responsibility for food safety – governments, regional economic bodies, UN organizations, development agencies, trade organizations, consumer and producer groups, academic and research institutions and private sector entities – must work together on issues that affect us all, globally, regionally and locally. Collaboration is needed at many levels – across sectors within a government and across borders.

In a region of the world like Africa, plagued by problems such as the lack of drinking water and the inadequacy of sewage systems and sanitation, where food-borne diseases find fertile ground, the guarantee of food security must be conquered and defended in the protection of the right to health.

(Dr) Laila Fabiana Al Kassem, dietitian (Dr) Irene Aglaia Matelloni, dietitian