Foodborne diseases pose a serious threat to densely populated areas of Asia and the Pacific

Foodborne diseases pose a serious threat to densely populated areas of Asia and the Pacific, two UN agencies said today. ''So far, food contamination incidents and food-borne disease outbreaks in the region have been relatively isolated, but the potential danger is just round the corner. Already an estimated one in three people worldwide suffer annually from a food-borne disease and 1.8 million die from severe food and waterborne diarrhoea.''

Seeking to head off future threats to public health and international trade posed by potentially unsafe food in Asia and the Pacific, food safety officials and experts from some 40 countries in the region are meeting this week in Seremban, Malaysia at a four-day Regional Conference on Food Safety, under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

''The danger of food-related outbreaks is particularly acute in Asia and the Pacific, because of the instances in which animals and people live in proximity and the way in which some food is produced and distributed,'' says Dr Kerstin Leitner, WHO Assistant Director-General responsible for Food Safety. The avian influenza epidemic, as the most recent example of a disease linking food, animals and human health, has been historically unprecedented and of great concern for human health as well as for agriculture, with 23 fatal human cases and about 100 million birds died or culled. However, in the region, more than 700,000 people die and many more are debilitated every year from single cases of food- and water-borne disease -- single cases that most often do not hit press headlines.

On the trade side, disruptions due to shortcomings in food quality have also been on the increase. ''Since 2001, unacceptable pesticide residue levels in fruits and vegetables, Chloramphenicol and other antibiotic residues in seafood and poultry, pathogens in seafood and mycotoxins in crops and peanuts have been the cause of rejection of food export from the Asian region,'' according to Hartwig de Haen, FAO Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Department. A ban on fish imports into the EU cost one Asian country $335 million of lost export opportunities.

The export of peanut meal by one Asian country to the European Union dropped by more than $30 million per year since the EU introduced new mycotoxin regulation in the early 1980s. Recent scandals with life threatening sub-standard or chemical contaminated food are just the tip of the iceberg of a widespread and growing public health problem. They are symptomatic of food safety systems not properly working and of the lack of integrated mechanisms in the region -- and often within individual countries -- to predict potential outbreaks and organize rapid responses to prevent them.

The Food Safety Regional Conference is the response to the urgent need for countries in the region to work together to develop harmonized and coordinated food safety systems resulting in uniform emergency responses to such threats, the UN agencies say.

The Conference is part of a series of regional meetings that FAO and WHO are jointly organizing to meet the needs of member countries for policy guidance and capacity building in food safety. A practical action plan is expected to emerge from this meeting to help the region overcome the difficulties and problems they face in improving food safety, including their surveillance and response systems. Particular attention is devoted to covering the full food production chain with a special focus on the segments that are best suited for interventions to lower significantly the food-borne disease risk.

The meeting will also encourage improved communication among scientists, regulators, and industry and consumer representatives in an effort to promote such risk reduction, which has been possible in other regions. Participants in the Asia Pacific Regional Food Safety Conference come largely from regulatory bodies for food safety in the Ministries of Agriculture and Health of FAO and WHO member countries. Representatives of independent food safety agencies and other ministries with responsibilities for food safety, and international Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) representing industry, producers, trade and retail associations, and consumer groups will also attend.

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