The safe journey of your plate of fish

World Health Day 2015 shines light on food safety

Wherever you are in the world, the food you eat has had to travel to your plate. Whether the journey is short or long, there are dangers that it won’t arrive safely and when you eat it you may get sick.

This is the story, however, of how your food, in this case a tasty piece of fish, makes the journey safely, protected by an extraordinary system of food standards, legislation and inspections.

The FAO is at the origin of many of the standards and builds the capacity of countries to enforce them. The World Health Organization commemorates World Health Day on 7 April, with the theme this year of food safety.

Here is how the two organizations work together to protect your food every kilometre of its journey to your plate.

Tilapia from Lake Victoria

Dawn on Lake Victoria in Uganda, in East Africa, and the fishing boats are going out. The men hope they will catch some big Nile Perch or Tilapia, fish much appreciated in markets in Europe and elsewhere. For the purposes of this story, we will trace the safe journey of our fish from the lake to Paris, 5 700 kilometres away, where it will be sold at a neighbourhood fish shop, carried home and cooked for a family dinner.

National food standards in Uganda are based on Codex Alimentarius, the food code run by FAO and WHO. The Codex objective is to develop harmonized international food standards to protect the health of consumers and to insure fair practice in the food trade.

“The standards are enforced right from the capture of fish, the boats are clean, the fish is handled properly,” said Dr Rhoda Tumbewaze, Assistant Commissioner, Ministry of Fisheries, Uganda.

“At landing sites we have improved structures, we have potable water, which is used for cleaning places where fish is handled. The transport boats we make sure they have ice. The transport trucks that collect fish from landing sites, they also use ice.

“At the factory, we make sure they comply with the standards required, such as temperature, and the labelling to make sure they can be traced back to where it originated from,” she said.

Protecting the food chain

Government fisheries inspectors take samples of fish and lake water on an ongoing basis to test for such contaminants as pesticide residues, microbial parameters, heavy metal contaminants and chemical freshness indicators.

The day’s catch makes its way to a fish processing plant, where it is filleted, frozen and certified for export.

A risk-based preventive approach to the fish as food chain is followed. For the processing plant alone, inspectors regularly check a long list of requirements regarding clean surfaces, pest control, equipment, temperatures, workers’ cleanliness and health, handling procedures and many other hygienic and quality control factors.

After packing into styrofoam boxes with the origin of the fish marked on each box, the fish is ready to be trucked to nearby Entebbe International Airport and loaded for its flight to Europe.

Fish for dinner

The shipment of Ugandan fish travels with its export certificate, prepared in Uganda to show that the fish has been handled according to European Union Food import requirements. This will be examined upon landing, somewhat like a fish passport without which it cannot enter the country.

An inspector at the airport will take a random sample of the fish shipment, which will be analysed at a laboratory for chemical or microbiological contamination, parasites or physical hazard like fish hooks.

Off to a wholesale market, it is bought by a retailer, and, still chilled or frozen, transported to a Paris neighbourhood. Defrosted and sold, with its country of origin as part of its display, our fish is bought by a consumer, taken home and become a tasty – and safe – evening meal.

“It is entirely appropriate that this year’s World Health Day shines a spotlight on food safety,” said Renata Clarke, Chief of FAO’s Food Safety and Quality Unit. “Ensuring food safety is an essential step towards achieving food security as it contributes to consumer protection and public health. So, we cannot achieve food security without food safety.”

“Many aspects of food safety are addressed jointly by FAO and WHO in recognition of the public health importance,” she added. “When the entire food chain is understood and protected, it not only safeguards the health and well-being of people but also fosters economic development and improves livelihoods by promoting access to domestic, regional and international markets.”


FAO food safety and quality

WHO World Health Day

Codex and the food we eat – Uganda (video)