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APPENDIX III - Opening Remarks By Dr Kerstin Leitner, WHO

Bangkok, Thailand, 12-14 October 2004
Opening Remarks
Dr Kerstin Leitner
Assistant Director-General, Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments
World Health Organization, Geneva

His Excellency the Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang
Mr Secretary-General Apichart
My colleague from FAO, Mr de Haen
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the World Health Organization, I welcome you to this Second Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators and join my colleague from FAO in thanking the Government of Thailand for hosting the meeting. I would like to also take this opportunity to thank the donors that made contributions enabling this event.

Food safety was in the past not always addressed as a public health issue. In recent years, the public perception of the safety of our food supply has been shaken.

WHO's reporting system of cause of deaths shows that every year, food- and waterborne diarrhoeal diseases amount to a sad and unacceptable 1.8 million deaths, mainly of infants and children in developing countries. In industrial countries, food-borne disease from microorganisms alone affects up to 30 percent of the population on an annual basis, and we also have a disease burden from chemicals in food.

Some countries have been able in recent years to show a reduction in the number of cases of certain traditional food-borne diseases such as Salmonellosis. However, if we look at the broader trends, the increase in the incidence of Salmonella infections in humans in the years between 1980 and 2000 amounts to a factor of up to 20 for many of the countries in Europe and North America. In addition, Campylobacter in food is fast becoming the most common cause of food-borne disease.

Another example of a globally emerging problem in some way resulting from our newer agricultural production systems is antimicrobial resistance resulting in difficulties treating some of the most serious cases of food-borne disease.

Recent public health emergencies in this region, such as Avian flu, Nipah virus and SARS are all in some way related to the way we handle animals for human consumption.

The outcome of food-borne disease imposes strains on health systems and reduces economic productivity. Recent estimations from the USA suggest an annual cost of more than 6 billion dollars from food-borne disease to the US economy. Such figures of course do not include further economic losses within production and trade systems. The impacts on trade and national economies can be enormous, given that trade barriers and food safety related bans result in major economic losses for exporting countries and affects the livelihood of millions.

Our chains of food supply are often composed of many steps, and at each stage there are numerous possible occasions for contamination of the food. This Conference comes at an important point in time, and hopefully we can make a difference in moving forward this important issue also within national priority setting.

As part of our future work, we need to make sure that the public can get answers to their questions about the food they eat.

Protecting the health of consumers is at the core of WHO's mandate. Stable rural environments, healthy cities, and safe food all along the food chain from the producer to the consumer, are all important health determinants. Therefore WHO believes that in order to influence development in a positive way, it is important for the health sector to work closely with all the other sectors concerned in addressing food safety issues and to work with different government departments, civil society, consumer groups, private entities and the media.

Many problems in the past stem from the inability of government authorities to work together.

Some countries have in recent years shown the way forward by creating single food safety agencies overseeing the whole food chain. These agencies work in an independent capacity of line ministries but under the collective oversight of these ministries, normally agriculture, health, trade. Furthermore these food safety agencies are supported by independent scientific committees providing them with the necessary scientific advice. Local authorities run inspection services and advise the food safety agency when there is cause for concern in order to define the most appropriate response. These developments are encouraging.

This Second Global Forum on Food Safety is supported by WHO and FAO working together.

In addition to the Global Forum, the FAO/WHO partnership has seen in recent years a number of important new initiatives to assist and facilitate improved food safety. Together with the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health, FAO and WHO have developed the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF). STDF will focus on strengthening the capacity of countries to implement and use internationally agreed food safety standards.

This Forum will see the inauguration of several other major initiatives led by FAO and WHO. One such specific initiative is a new global network of all food safety authorities, which has received major interest from Member States. So far, 102 countries have registered as participants in the network. The network (INFOSAN) will improve the ability of countries and authorities to respond jointly and in a timely manner to food related emergencies.

Delegates, now is a good time to scale up our collective efforts on food safety, initiating evidence collection and country-level surveillance and implementing effective responses, as well as ensuring that the issue is high on the political agenda everywhere. We need to share our experiences - good and bad - so that future food safety systems can improve and leap-frog over past mistakes.

I wish you a successful conference, and look forward to following your deliberations in this critical area of public health.

Thank you.

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