FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Foodborne illnesses in Asia-Pacific ‘needlessly’ sicken 275 million annually and threaten trade

07/06/2019 Bangkok, Thailand

The Asia-Pacific region has a poor track record when it comes to preventing foodborne illnesses, resulting in the deaths of 225,000 people each year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today, during an event marking the first World Food Safety Day.

“Worldwide, each year, unsafe food or water kill more people than HIV, AIDS, malaria and measles combined, and it’s now time that everyone takes this issue more seriously,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. “In so many cases the deaths and illnesses associated with consuming unsafe food were needless and could have been prevented.”

Globally, some 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur annually and 420,000 people, including 30 percent of them children below the age of five, die each year as a result of these illnesses.  In the Asia-Pacific region, more than 275 million people fall ill due to foodborne causes each year.

While this is clearly a public health issue, foodborne illnesses also result in lost productivity, damage livelihoods and hinder progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030.

The food safety picture in Asia and the Pacific

While there are various ways that food can become contaminated, in the Asia-Pacific region poor hygiene and mishandling are among the main culprits. So too is exposure to the elements such as of street food and fresh produce that is left out for hours in open air markets and in hot climates. Undercooking of food and lack of proper refrigeration also contribute to food that becomes unfit to eat.

Improving hygiene practices in the food and agricultural sectors helps to reduce the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance along the food chain and in the environment. Investment in consumer food safety education has the potential to reduce foodborne disease and return savings of up to ten-fold for each dollar invested.

Improvements to food safety on the radar screens of most countries

Calls to improve food safety in the Asia-Pacific region are increasing, primarily by governments who view this as both a public health issue and a hindrance to international trade in agricultural products. In economic terms, the World Bank estimates that, globally, each year unsafe food causes losses of USD 95 billion in low-and middle-income countries alone.

“Food safety needs to be incorporated at every stage across the food chain and there is tremendous scope to incorporate good practices and standards in all sectors of food and agriculture. Our member countries are increasingly asking us to give more guidance on improving national food control systems and food safety tools to be applied to both their domestic and international markets,” Kadiresan said. “FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly maintain the Codex Alimentarius system of food standards including key guidelines and codes of practices which is a valuable resource freely available to all countries.”

A call to action – Everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s business

To improve health, well-being and food security, FAO’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific today sponsored an event to mark the first World Food Safety Day, with the theme that food safety is everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s business. Government authorities must ensure a transparent regulatory framework and its fair enforcement. The private sector’s responsibility is to implement food safety measures and management systems that ensure safe food for all. It is the duty of consumers to be vigilant and increase their awareness about good practices at home and at the workplace including schools.

The objective of World Food Safety Day is to raise awareness that consequences of unsafe food consumption on human health is extremely serious with basic microbiological contaminations which are usually neglected – undercooked food, cross-contamination and non-hygienic handling are the main killers. In other words, these illnesses occur needlessly and everyone can play a significant role to prevent them happening.

World Food Safety Day is also an opportunity to better understand how to help prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks. Participants and guests were shown examples of improvements to food handling and how to achieve greater awareness of everyone along the value chain, from the farm and the fishing boat, to the market and finally the consumer.  

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