World Health Day is celebrated every year to mark the anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) that was founded in 1948. Each year, WHO picks a theme that highlights an important area of public health, initiates discussion and calls for action from countries across the globe. This year, the theme is 'food safety' which focuses on the need of safe food that is 'free from microbes, viruses and chemicals'.
To celebrate this day in India, the Indian Health Ministry joined hands with the World Health Organization (WHO) to urge people to make food safety a priority. Recently, they organized a national consultation on Food Safety which was attended by a number of Indian Ministers and WHO officials to discuss the issue and steps that need to be taken to tackle the problem.
In her opening address, Nata Menabde, WHO Representative to India shared, "About 2.2 million people in the world, including many children, die annually due to food-borne diseases. Unsafe food, containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancer."
In the wake of these statistics, it's about time we address the issue of food safety which is a growing public health concern. Therefore, the objective of WHO this year is to drive collective government and public action by taking into consideration all sectors and departments like agriculture, health, education and trade. It stressed on the collaboration of every government with civil societies, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and consumers to ensure safe food, everybody has a role to play.
To do this, the first step was to identify the major challenges posed to production, supply and distribution of food in India.
Food hazards at farm level -"Pesticides and the use of fertilizers in the past 50 years have grown nearly 170 times," said Ms Menabde. Pesticide residues has been the biggest issue regarding food safety. According to Utpal Kumar Singh, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, "A lot of steps have been taken to curb this situation. No pesticide can be registered without risk assessment and knowing about its toxicity. We are working on making labels and leaflets more farmer friendly. Training programs are being organized to make them more aware about the waiting period and the right time to use pesticides. We are also promoting the use of bio-pesticides. In most cases, pesticides may be used just before harvest and this can lead to residues above maximum residue level. Therefore, they need to know how much to use and when to use." The focus is on framing standards and putting in place a system of certification of organic products.
Storage and Distribution - Food adulteration has become very common. These may be chemicals and additives or inferior quality ingredients. Strict vigilance is required at every step. "Our food supply chain is fragmented at every stage. Inspection and certification along with validation is extremely important," says Mr Sudhanshu Pandey, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Commerce and Industry. It is estimated that 20 to 25% of food stocks are lost due to lack of storage facilities. 70% of the items are sold lose in the markets.
"We need to regulate our Public Distribution System. Grains, pulses and cereals should be packaged and sold and for fresh fruits, vegetables and street food standards need to be set for sale and preparation. Statistics reveal that about 42% children in 102 districts suffer from malnutrition. Access to a nutritionally balanced diet for pregnant mothers and children should be the focus," said Mr Keshav Desiraju, Secretary, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Government of India.
Processed Food - Reading your labels has become of utmost importance considering the various scandals and risks surrounding processed food. Most products are loaded with saturated fat, sugar and sodium that are increasing the burden of non communicable diseases more than ever. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India was established in 2006 and has been conforming with WHO standards to ensure proper labeling and licensing. "Food safety is the forefront of policy making. Every penny spent on making food safe is equivalent to a reduction in every penny spent on health care. We need to strengthen our laboratory infrastructure at state level to maintain standards and detect discrepancies earlier," said Mr YS Malik, CEO, FSSAI.
"We've conducted studies which show that most people can't read labels. People may only see the brand name or date of expiry. They need to be informed about the scientific rationale behind the use of certain ingredients or practices. Kids should get this knowledge in schools so that they can make better choices," said Dr G.M Subba Roa, Scientist, National Institute of Nutrition
Food processing is a necessary evil; it drives trade through export of food products. Contamination may occur due to failure of application of appropriate technologies or misuse of chemicals. There need to be stringent regulations regarding quality control. Local contamination can easily enter International markets through trade and cause an outbreak.
FSSAI conforms with standards set by various global instruments like International Health Organization, International Network of Food Safety Authorities and CODEX Alimentarius for import and export of safe food products.
Antibiotic Resistance and Microbial Contamination - With increased consumption of animal products, there is a larger risk of exposure to zoonotic diseases. 60% of all infectious pathogens are of animal origin. In the past there have been issues like unhygienic breeding conditions or use of growth hormones. The collaboration between WHO, FAO and World Organization for Animal Health aims to tighten surveillance. Besides this, how we handle food at home also makes a difference. Clean surfaces and hygienic surroundings are the basics that one should never part with. Inadequate cooking, cross contamination, improper holding temperature are some other risks that we should be careful of.
The WHO Global Action Plan for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases 2013 - 2020 will stress on banning all forms of tobacco and alcohol advertising, replacing trans-fat with polyunsaturated fats and reducing the level of sugar and salt added to food or even consumed on daily basis. "The Government of India has already developed a National NCD Monitoring Framework with the WHO Global Action Plan for prevention and control of NCDs," expressed Ms Menabde.
On the other hand, the consumer needs to be more aware to be able to make informed choices. The World Health Organization recommends the following five keys to safer food.
1. Keep clean: We know the importance of a clean and hygienic environment, but sometimes we tend to overlook the basics. Microorganisms can easily be transferred from dirty hands, wiping cloths and utensils (especially cutting boards) and the slightest contact can cause food borne illnesses. Washing and sanitizing all surfaces and kitchen equipment is highly essential.
2. Keep food at safe temperatures: Do not leave cooked food for more than 2 hours at room temperature. Refrigerate all cooked food below 5 degree Celsius. Keep cooked food piping hot. Do not store food in the refrigerator for too long and avoid thawing at room temperature. Microorganisms can multiply very quickly. By storing food below 5 degree Celsius and above 60 degree Celsius, the growth of bacteria can be controlled.
3. Separate raw and cooked food: This reduces the risk of cross contamination. Juices from raw foods like poultry, meat and seafood can contaminate fresh vegetables and fruits when stored together. Raw meat could carry bacteria and should be stored in plastic bag to prevent juices from dripping on other foods. Cooked meat products, dairy products and egg dishes (high protein foods) should be stored carefully, these can be easily contaminated. Eggs should be refrigerated as soon as possible. Never place or serve cooked food in the same utensils that held raw foods.
4. Cook thoroughly: Cooking kills most of the dangerous microorganisms. Previous studies have shown that cooking food at a temperature of 70 degree Celsius can ensure safe consumption. It is especially important to cook meat, poultry, eggs and seafood thoroughly and also reheat cooked food thoroughly. Cooking reduces the risk of food poisoning. Inadequate cooking is one if the common causes of food poisoning. Cover your dishes as steam promotes cooking. Take extra precaution when using raw eggs in batters, dips or spreads. Cooking in a microwave or oven, may sometimes leave the food partially uncooked. To avoid this, place thicker items towards the edge and stir and rotate while cooking.
5. Use safe water and raw materials: Raw materials like water and ice are some of the most common sources of bacteria. Using clean water, pasteurized milk and checking for expiry dates are simple ways in which we can ensure food safety.
Ms Menabde along with other Ministers echoed the fact that the full burden of food-borne illness is not known as most of the cases are unreported. According to surveillance data in the country from 2011-14, food-borne outbreaks and acute diarrhoeal diseases made up nearly half of all the reported outbreaks during this period. There is an urgent need to collate better statistics and data so as to tackle the problem at the ground level. Food safety is a shared responsibility and it needs multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary action.