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UN bodies call for tougher food safety legislation

By Ahmed ElAmin , 23-Jul-2007

Tougher legislation and more inspections are needed to prevent the up to 200 food safety incidents reported internationally, according to two UN bodies.

The prospect of more food safety laws and inspections at ports of entry - as some countries are already implementing - will raise costs for processors.


The Food and Agriculture (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that recent scares - such as melamine in animal and fish feed, or the use of unauthorised veterinary drugs in aquaculture -- prove the weaknesses in regulatory systems around the world.


The UN-affiliated bodies noted that during the last 12 months, WHO and the FAO had investigated an average of up to 200 food safety incidents per month that are reported to an international monitoring system.


The incidents were reported through the FAO's International Food Safety Authorities Network (Infosan), which serves as an alert system to regulators worldwide.


"Such food safety incidents are often caused by lack of knowledge of food safety requirements and of their implications, or by the illegal or fraudulent use of ingredients including unauthorised food additives or veterinary drugs," the organisations stated in a joint release.


The FAO and WHO urged all countries to strengthen their food safety systems and to be more vigilant with producers and traders.


Food safety is an issue for every country and ultimately every consumer, said Jørgen Schlundt, the director of WHO's department of food safety.


"All countries can benefit from taking stronger measures to fill safety gaps in the sometimes considerable journey food takes from the farm to the table," he said.


Weak food safety systems can lead to a higher incidence of safety problems and diseases, he said.


Ezzeddine Boutrif, director of FAO's nutrition and consumer protection division said the laws should be based on the principle that consumers have a right to be informed about the potential hazards of the foods they eat.


"Countries are only able to keep their shares in globalised food markets and the trust of consumers if they apply internationally agreed food quality and safety standards," said Boutrif.


The FAO noted that developing countries face a set of particular issues that affect food safety, including a high population growth and urbanization, changing dietary patterns, intensification and the industrialisation of food prroduction.


"Food safety legislation in many developing countries is often incomplete or obsolete or not in line with international requirements," the FAO stated. "Responsibility for food safety and control tends to be dispersed across many institutions. Laboratories lack essential equipment and supplies."


In addition many developed countries are in similar situations with food safety systems that often do not include or cover primary production, where many contamination problems originate.


For example the spread in recent years of new Salmonella strains in poultry originated in developed countries and was spread globally through trade, the organisations stated.


"In order to ensure safe food production for their own consumers and to meet international sanitary and phytosanitary requirements for food exports, national food safety authorities should be more vigilant," the FAO stated. "Producers and traders should be held accountable for safe food production throughout the food chain."


World Trade Organisation rules stipulate that developed countries must help exporting developing countries to achieve the necessary high level of regulation necessary for international trade.


The Codex Alimentarius Commission established by FAO and WHO develops science and risk-based food safety standards that are a reference in international trade and a model for countries to use in their legislation.


The application of these standards and guidelines would ensure food safety and consumer protection.


Diarrhoeal diseases alone, due mainly to unsafe food and water, kill 1.8 million children every year, the FAO and WHO stated.

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