Food Safety in the 21st Century

By Kaferstein, F.; Abdussalam, M. | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Food Safety in the 21st Century


Kaferstein, F., Abdussalam, M., Bulletin of the World Health Organization


Voir page 350 le resume en francais. En la pagina 350 figura un resumen en espanol.

The global importance of food safety is not fully appreciated by many public health authorities. Epidemiological surveillance has demonstrated a constant increase in the prevalence of foodborne illness. Moreover, there have been some devastating outbreaks of salmonellosis, cholera, enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli infections, hepatitis A and other diseases in both developed and developing countries. Cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases, traditionally considered to be spread by water or person-to-person contact, are in fact largely foodborne. In the industrialized countries up to 10% of the population may suffer annually from foodborne diseases (1).

There has been considerable public interest in transgenic foods, toxic chemicals in food, the irradiation of foodstuffs, and the possible risk of transmission of "mad cow" disease through the consumption of beef. Food safety is likely to receive increasing attention in the 21st century, especially as some global changes, already in progress, are likely to have predominantly adverse effects in this field. Urbanization, alterations in microbial and other ecological systems, and diminishing supplies of food and fresh water are among the factors in question. A much more serious challenge is foreseeable, however, in connection with changes resulting directly in the degradation of sanitation and the immediate human environment.

Evolving influences

Demographic changes

Within two decades the human population is predicted to reach 8.5 billion, 80% of which is expected to be in developing countries (27). This compares with 5.8 billion in 1996. This tremendous increase and the uneven distribution can be expected to cause serious problems of food security and safety, environmental degradation, large-scale migration from rural to urban areas and from poor to richer countries, and significant changes in ecosystems.

In industrialized countries the proportion of people aged over 60 years is predicted to rise from 17% now to 25% by 2025. A similar phenomenon is occurring in the developing countries. Such change is likely to lead to acute socioeconomic problems and the emergence of many people with reduced resistance to diseases, including foodborne diseases.

Environmental hazards

The risk of foodborne disease is substantially heightened by biological and chemical contamination of areas where food is produced, processed and consumed. Population growth, unplanned migration from rural to urban areas, and consequent slum formation are bound to increase pollution. Drinking-water supplies and waste disposal systems come under intensified pressure in such circumstances, particularly in developing countries, and the risk of spread of foodborne pathogens is thereby exacerbated.

The incidence of foodborne infections and intoxications is significantly influenced by temperature (3). Substantial increases in such infections have been reported in temperate regions experiencing long hot summers. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast that the average temperature will rise by about 1.1 [degrees] C and 3.1 [degrees] C over 1995 levels by 2030 and 2090 respectively. The global effect on foodborne disease and other aspects of human health is unpredictable because the relationships involved are complex and multifactorial. However, an association has been established between the prevalence of cholera and dysentery and the oceanic phenomenon known as El Nino. This underlines the need for accurate forecasts of this and other phenomena so that preventive measures can be taken against the diseases concerned.

Toxic chemicals released into the environment by industrial processes and agricultural practices may enter the human food chain. When small quantities are present in food the effects on health are thought to be minimal. …

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