Food-borne diseases plague Asia Pacific countries

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Food-borne illnesses make about 275 million in Asia Pacific sick annually. Copyright: Image by Ann San from Pixabay. This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Food-borne ailments kill 225,000 Asians annually
  • Contaminated food costs low- and middle-income countries US$95 billion annually
  • Asian countries need scientific regulations and enforcement to deal with the problem

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[MANILA] On the first World Food Safety Day held 7 June, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that food-borne illnesses in the Asia Pacific region “needlessly” sicken over 275 million people annually out of which 225,000 people die each year.
“The lack of food safety leads to illnesses and deaths staggered over a period, which by itself does not draw notice, but the accumulated numbers eventually become very high,” Sridhar Dharmapuri, a senior food safety and nutrition officer at FAO in Bangkok, tells SciDev.Net. “The astounding economic burden of food-borne diseases (US$95 billion annually in middle- and low-income countries, according to the World Bank) has begun to be realised only recently.”

“All this needs comprehensive capacity building, training, systematic monitoring of food contaminants and their entry points into food chains”

Sridhar Dharmapuri, FAO

Globally, some 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur annually. In addition to being a public health issue, food-borne illnesses also result in lost productivity, damage livelihoods and hinder progress on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030.
According to a major 2015 report on food safety published by WHO, lack of proper hygiene, which includes the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, leads to the presence of pathogens in food which make up the main cause of food-borne diseases in Asia.
The Western Pacific region, which includes the Pacific small island developing states (SIDS), has the highest death rate of food-borne parasites, particularly the Clonorchis sinensis (Chinese liver fluke), Echinococcus multilocularis and Taenia solium (pork tapeworm). The Chinese liver fluke, commonly contracted through raw and incorrectly processed or cooked fish, infects more than 30,000 people in the region a year, causing death in one in five cases, says the WHO report.
Dharmapuri says that in order to effectively combat food-borne illnesses, Asia Pacific countries need laws with teeth, better science-based regulations and stronger enforcement. “They also need codes of practices tailored to different parts of the food chain,” he notes.
Crop growers, he said, need to be trained on the correct dose and application schedule of pesticides in the field to keep residues below permitted levels. The final product itself may be many stages away from the field and with multiple intermediate actors involved.
Dharmapuri said that those who store raw produce require adequate training in handling and must have clean and temperature-controlled storage facilities to avoid microbial growth leading to the presence of deadly toxins or spoilage. “This applies across every sector of agriculture production and in the food retail and service sector, including the burgeoning e-commerce sector,” he says.
“All this needs comprehensive capacity building, training, systematic monitoring of food contaminants and their entry points into food chains.” Dharmapuri said, adding that countries with stronger food control systems will still need to constantly improve and upgrade as technology, urbanisation and climate change are driving the way food is produced, processed and consumed.

Devesh Roy, an India-based senior research fellow at the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, tells SciDev.Net, that there has been a “latent demand for food safety in developing countries”. He suggests that governments and food industries in developing countries invest in mechanisms such as certification and labelling. “Lack of credible information and certification systems prevent the emergence of systems with non-price attributes like food safety becoming primal and mainstreamed.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.