If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food

Six ways we can work together to prevent foodborne diseases

Keeping food safe is a complex process that starts on the farm and ends with the consumer. FAO oversees food safety along all aspects of the food chain. ©Motortion Films


A healthy diet starts with safe food. Food that is tainted with bacteria, viruses, pesticides or chemical residues, for example, can cause serious illnesses and in the worst cases, can even lead to death. Consumers around the world have a right to expect that the foods they purchase and eat are safe and good quality.

Keeping food safe is a complex process that starts on the farm and ends with the consumer. All stages of the food chain, from production, harvest and storage to preparation and consumption, must be considered. FAO is the only international organization overseeing food safety along all aspects of the food chain. Through a longstanding partnership, FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) support global food safety and protect consumers’ health. FAO generally addresses food safety issues along the food chain during production and processing, while WHO typically oversees relationships with the public health sector. Safeguarding that food is safe to eat doesn’t stop with its purchase though. At home, consumers have a part in making sure that what they eat remains safe.

Here are six ways that we can all work together to keep our food safe:

1. Working from the beginning with local food producers - FAO is working with food producers, like farmers and fishers, to follow good hygiene and other agricultural practices that minimize food safety risks. Good Agricultural Practices guidelines provide producers around the world with some basic instructions that not only keep food safe but also enable them to gain access to markets. When food is produced and handled using national or international standards, it stays safe and can be sold nationally or internationally, opening new markets that can increase producers’ incomes and reduce poverty.

2. Setting global standards – How do countries or producers know what inputs or practices can make food unsafe for human consumption? The Codex Alimentarius Commission, developed jointly by FAO and WHO, is the quality standard-setting body that ensures global food safety. In accordance with the scientific advice of experts, the commission, including representatives from over 185  member countries, sets the international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice that establish how to keep food safe, of good quality and suitable for trade.

Good Agricultural Practices help producers not only keep food safe but also gain access to markets, increasing incomes and reducing poverty. Left: ©FAO/Marco Longari; Right: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

3. Making sure that countries have strong regulatory control systems - FAO works with countries to review and update food legislation, formulate evidence-based, coherent policies and develop capacities to perform food inspections. FAO also helps countries to manage and contain outbreaks through sampling and analysis of affected products.

4. Encouraging safer food practices at home- Most of the illnesses caused by foodborne disease are a result of unsafe practices at home. Handling food safely is even more challenging when access to clean water or electricity for stoves and refrigerators is unavailable or unreliable. Working especially for those in rural village communities, FAO identifies the risks on the ground and helps provide clear, pragmatic and credible advice for consumers through poster campaigns, the media and word of mouth.

5. Assessing the science behind food safety - Together FAO and WHO regularly convene meetings of experts from around the world to gather information about the latest scientific advances related to potential hazards in foods. These experts assess chemical and microbial risks to the food supply and determine how to contain them. This Scientific Advice serves as a reference for national governments and the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Preventing food safety emergencies is the top priority, but when a food safety emergency occurs it needs to be managed and responded to quickly. The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) help countries rapidly share information to stop the spread of contaminated food from one country to another. ©FAO/Ezequiel Becerra

6. Promoting food safety emergency preparedness and response – Prevention should be everyone’s top priority when it comes to food safety. However, when Salmonella is found in melons or E. coli in lettuce for example, these situations need to be managed and responded to quickly to prevent escalation into a food safety emergency. In addition to the immediate health concerns of the people and/or animals involved, these types of emergencies can also adversely impact livelihoods and even national economies. The reduced availability of food for national consumption, closure of export markets, or high cost of addressing the effects of the threat can impact a country and a population in multiple ways. Through International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), FAO and WHO help countries manage food safety risks, ensuring that information is shared rapidly during food safety emergencies to stop the spread of contaminated food from one country to another. INFOSAN also facilitates sharing experiences and tested solutions in and between countries to inform future interventions to protect the health of consumers. 

An estimated three million people around the world, in developed and developing countries, die every year from food and waterborne disease, with millions more becoming sick. Food is the starting point for our energy, our health and our well-being. We often take for granted that it is safe, but in an increasingly complex and interconnected world where food value chains are growing longer, standards and regulations are that much more important in keeping us safe.

If food isn’t safe, it isn’t food. We cannot hope to end hunger and create a #ZeroHunger world without this basic building block.

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3. Good health and well-being