By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – At least 600 million people, or 1 in 10 worldwide, fall ill from contaminated food each year & 420,000 die, many of them young children, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.
Giving its first global estimates of preventable foodborne diseases, a WHO report called on governments & industry to improve inspections & control of the food chain from the fields & farmyard to the factory & the plate.
Foodborne diseases – caused by bacteria such as salmonella, viruses, parasites, toxins & chemicals – mostly cause temporary symptoms such as nausea, diarrhoea & vomiting.
But they can moreover cause longer-term illnesses including cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain disorders, epilepsy & arthritis, the United Nations agency said.
"The data we are publishing is only a very conservative estimate, we are sure that the real figure is bigger," Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of WHO's Department of Food Safety, told a news briefing.
Apart from estimating the extent of contamination, the report moreover looked at the way food is traded & sold.
Part of the problem can come from global trading in food, Miyagishima said: "If there is one country where food safety is weak & this country exports food to other countries, (it) becomes the weakest chain in the whole food production system."
Faulty handling at the other end of the food chain, for example by street vendors, is moreover a problem in many countries.
"It is much better to invest in training & education of street vendors than to try to penalise them," said University of Florida expert Dr. Arie Hendrik Havelaar. "That would be an significant strategy for many countries in the world to improve the food safety situation."
The highest number of cases & deaths occur among the poor in developing countries, yet the United States & Europe moreover have deadly outbreaks.
"Our results show that the biggest burden is in Africa & in southeast Asia, & there the death rates are highest, including those of children under five years of age," said Havelaar, who chaired the WHO group of 150 scientists that carried out the research for the report.
Children under age five account for 40 percent of the 600 million cases of foodborne disease worldwide a year & 125,000 of the 420,000 deaths, or 30 percent, the WHO said.
Children are especially vulnerable to diarrhoeal diseases, often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, or eggs, fresh produce & dairy products that are contaminated, it said.
In Africa, most deaths are caused by salmonella, the pork tapeworm, cyanide in cassava & aflatoxin, a chemical produced by moulds that grow on improperly stored grains or corn.
Governments must invest more in training food producers, suppliers & the public, the WHO said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Tom Heneghan)