31 March 2003, Rome -- Food safety is a global issue which demands an integrated, global response.

But the answer to tackling the issue of food-borne hazards which know no geographical boundaries lies very close to home - in the farms, fields, orchards and rivers, large or small - where our food has its source.

FAO is advocating a new approach to ensuring that the food we eat is free from food-borne hazards - everything from pesticides and industrial chemicals, through to unwanted bacteria and contaminants - the "Food Chain Approach".

The system, to be discussed during a week-long high-level Committee on Agriculture meeting (31 March - 4 April 2003), urges prevention as well as cure.

The key is to strengthen each and every link in the complex process of food reaching the consumer - from the way it is grown or raised, to how it is collected, processed, packaged, sold and consumed.

Which came first - the chicken or the egg?

Traditionally, the food safety net has targeted the intermediary stages of the food chain - when food is processed from its raw state - rather than the initial or final stages of the food chain, where food is grown or consumed.

But a spate of outbreaks of food-borne diseases has highlighted the fact that many breaches of food safety have their origins at the very beginning of the food chain.

The outbreak of BSE or "mad cow" disease, for example, was linked to contaminated feed. It set the United Kingdom back some US$6 billion and badly bruised consumer confidence.

Such episodes have led to heightened consumer awareness becoming a driving force in food production.

Consumers want to know what they are eating and where it comes from.

Checking at source

"There are already good standards of safety and hygiene in the meat and dairy processing industries," said FAO Assistant Director-General, Hartwig de Haen, "but we need to give more consideration to hygiene on the farm and the health of the animal, including what it is fed and how it is managed, to avoid contamination of animal products and risks to human health from diseases that can be transmitted to humans."

"We need to strengthen every single part of the food chain. One weak link, especially near the beginning, can make the whole food chain collapse," he added.

In developing countries almost two million children die each year from diarrhoea, caused mainly by microbe-contaminated food and water.

The food chain approach extends to the very end of the food chain - the consumer - by advocating training and education on the safe storage, preparation and consumption of food.

The problem is all the more serious as what could once be contained within national borders now spreads with speed.

In 1999, for example, a single source of contaminated animal feed spread the industrial waste-product dioxin across continents in weeks.

"Frontiers no longer exist for contaminants," de Haen said, "Chemical and biological contaminants travel within the global market place further and faster than ever before. We need global measures just as we need to strengthen the whole length of the food chain."

Filling the GAP

Sharing the responsibility for providing safe food among all players in the food and agriculture sector - from food producers and processors to retailers and households - is mirrored by an approach in which developed countries offer developing ones the resources and experience to build their capacity to ensure their food chains are safe.

FAO's approach includes the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) which establish basic principles for farming, including soil and water management, crop and animal production, storage, processing and waste disposal.

The aim of the food chain approach, which incorporates these improved farming practices, is to ensure that the food chain becomes more transparent so national and global foodcrises can be prevented rather than treated.

Some examples of food-borne hazards:
  • Zoonotic agents
    eg: Salmonella
  • Food-borne pathogens
    eg: Listeria, Campylobacter
  • Naturally-occuring toxicants
    eg: mycotoxins, marine biotoxins

  • Industrial contaminants
    eg: mercury, dioxin

  • Agricultural residues
    eg: pesticides, veterinary drugs

Stephanie Holmes
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 56350