Though some may consider the theme for this year’s World Food Safety Day (WFSD), “Safer Food, Better Health”, obvious, few persons know that an estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year. And startlingly, children under 5 years old carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The United Nations established World Food Safety Day in 2018 to raise awareness about food safety. Observed on June 7, World Food Safety Day initiatives highlight how to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances that enter the body through contaminated food or water. However, to tackle this issue, better data is needed to understand the far-reaching impacts of unsafe food and document the capacity of Caribbean countries to respond to and in turn, develop climate-resilient food safety plans.
Climate Risks and Food Safety Baseline Assessment
To this end, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) is currently, as part of the PAHO, coordinated EU/CARIFORUM Strengthening Climate Resilient Health Systems in the Caribbean project, conducting a Climate Risks and Food Safety Baseline Assessment.
This assessment exercise seeks to determine the resilience of food/water safety and health and agriculture-related sectors in response to the effects of climate change in CARIFORUM countries. Assessments of past national food safety plans have shown limited incorporation of climate resilience. However, CARPHA and PAHO through this project will be reviewing and revising these plans with countries, factoring in climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Some of its objectives are to identify strengths, gaps, and opportunities in the surveillance and outbreak investigation of food-borne diseases and food/water borne hazards related to climate/weather events; identify reservoirs for food and water-borne disease pathogens, and assess the capacity for implementing climate integrated food-borne disease early warning systems.
Out of the participating ten countries, the majority have developed national food safety plans, and country officials recognize the effects of climate change on national and regional food safety and security, as well as the increased future risks. Within the health sector, emphasis will be placed on strengthening surveillance systems, including enhancing laboratory capacity for the detection of food-borne diseases.
Climate change events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts also exert pressure on food production systems in the Caribbean, making countries highly dependent on food imports and volatile prices.
Improving hygiene practices in the food and agricultural sectors also helps to reduce the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance along the food chain and in the environment. Dr Renata Clarke, FAO Sub-Regional Coordinator, underlined that the current focus of Caribbean Heads of State on a regional approach to food security should extend to food safety. She noted that food systems are dynamic, making food safety dynamic: “There needs to be constant vigilance to ensure that our food safety system is keeping pace with changes provoked by climate change, by technology, and by changing lifestyles.”
The Caribbean Agricultural Health and Food Safety Agency (CAHFSA) is CARICOM’s inter-governmental agency mandated to coordinate and organize actions to enhance, strengthen and harmonize the regional sanitary and phytosanitary mechanisms. Dr Suzan McLennon-Miguel, CAHFSA’s Food Safety Specialist, called on all stakeholders and consumers to become educated on food safety. Additionally, she commended the FAO, PAHO/WHO, and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) for providing scientific safer food guidelines, imperative for better health.