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Countries in the Americas told to focus on food safety

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Countries in the Americas have been urged to take measures to ensure food safety throughout the production chain.

The Pan American Center for Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Veterinary Public Health (PANAFTOSA), which is based in Brazil, also commented on the role of workers in ensuring a continuous supply of food during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of World Food Safety Day.

The focus this year was the importance of food safety in traditional markets, which are the main source of fresh and accessible food for many low-income groups, and an important point of livelihood for millions of urban and rural inhabitants throughout the region. However, traditional markets, particularly those that sell live animals, may present a risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases from animals to humans.

There are almost 50 nations in the Americas including the United States, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago.

Regulations and inspections
“In addition to safety, we want to highlight that, from a public health point of view, food markets can be a potential focus of outbreaks of zoonotic diseases and disease transmission. For these reasons, it is important to alert country authorities in the region about the need for regulations and inspections to prevent risks in transportation centers, retention centers and markets,” said Ottorino Cosivi, director of PANAFTOSA.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and countries of the region are strengthening systems through a regional plan of action for technical cooperation in food safety, which is coordinated by PANAFTOSA.

“Foodborne illness is a global public health problem and that is why we cooperate with the countries of the Americas to strengthen their food safety systems,” said Dr. Margarita Corrales, manager of the food safety program at PANAFTOSA.

PANAFTOSA said governments must ensure safe and nutritious food, through policies that promote agriculture and sustainable food systems, and collaboration between public and animal health, agriculture and other sectors.

Agricultural producers must guarantee a supply of safe food to consumers and businesses need to ensure food is safely transported, stored and processed. Consumers also need access to timely, clear and reliable information on the nutritional and disease risk associated with food choices.

Not a full picture
Meanwhile, Renata Clarke, sub-regional coordinator of the FAO, said the commonly referenced figures of 600 million sick and 420,000 deaths annually only provide a partial count as data on foodborne illnesses are weak and statistics just consider the impact of a few of the most common disease agents.

Clarke was speaking during a virtual press conference in Bridgetown, Barbados, organized to mark World Food Safety Day by PAHO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

She called for assurances that people involved in production of food “are following good food hygiene practices” and challenged governments to provide “appropriate oversight to guide the definition of those good practices, to facilitate compliance and to enforce as necessary.”

Yitades Gebre, PAHO/WHO Representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Countries, said proper cleaning and prevention of cross-contamination are critical to control foodborne illness.

“The application of sound principles of environmental sanitation, personal hygiene and established food safety practices will reduce the likelihood that harmful pathogens will threaten the safety of the food supply, regardless of whether the food is sourced from intensive agriculture.”

Caribbean outlook
Foodborne diseases continue to increase and impact public health and the economy, according to information from the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).

Each year, roughly 1 in 49 people in the Caribbean, or 142,000, acquire a foodborne illness linked to contaminated food or drink. This number increases to one in 11 during frequent mass gatherings such as carnival, cricket matches, food festivals and holiday celebrations.

More than 40 percent of cases are children aged one to four years old. The estimated economic cost of gastroenteritis was $21 million per year, based on the Caribbean burden of foodborne illness study in 2015.

CARPHA brings together reported cases of foodborne diseases for the region. Data shows increasing prevalence of diarrheal illness and occurrence of outbreaks. Figures for 21 CARPHA member states from 2005 to 2016 highlight that reported pathogens increased by 31 percent. Salmonella was the most common infection, followed by Ciguatera poisoning, Shigella, Campylobacter and Norovirus.

Ensuring food safety in the Caribbean is a complex challenge, according to CARPHA. The region is characterized by small populations, varying levels of epidemiological and laboratory skills and capacities and intense movement via trade, labor, and tourism. It also imports 55 to 85 percent of its food and is the most tourism-dependent region in the world.

CARPHA has trained and certified 500 people in nine of its countries in advanced food safety and has developed hospitality health, food safety, and environmental standards to provide a basis for development of effective food safety programs for the hospitality industry.

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