FAO, WHO urge vigilance in light of recent food scares

Jul 20, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday urged all countries to strengthen their food safety systems, a day after President Bush issued an executive order establishing a group to examine the safety of imported food and other goods.

While the FAO and WHO pointed to two recent food safety incidents that involved food from China—the chemical melamine in animal and fish feed and unauthorized veterinary drugs in seafood imports—they also highlighted food safety gaps in developed countries.

The organizations, in a press release today, said in the last 12 months they have investigated an average of 200 food safety incidents per month.

"Food safety is an issue for every country and ultimately every food consumer," said Jorgen Schlundt, director of the WHO's department of food safety, zoonoses, and foodborne diseases, in the statement. "All countries can benefit from taking stronger measures to fill food safety gaps in the sometimes considerable journey food takes from the farm to the table."

Food production systems in developing countries face steep challenges, such as population growth, intensification and industrialization of food and agricultural production, sanitary conditions, and weak public infrastructure, the FAO and WHO said. Food safety legislation in those countries is often incomplete and not consistent with international regulations, and laboratories lack essential equipment and supplies.

However, developed countries often have similarly fragmented food safety systems that do not cover primary production where many food safety problems originate, they said. For example, the spread of new Salmonella strains in poultry in recent years originated in developed countries and spread globally.

World Trade Organization rules require developed countries to help developing countries that export food achieve high levels of food safety needed for international trade, the organizations said.

In a related development, President Bush yesterday issued an executive order establishing an interagency working group to promote the safety of products imported into the United States. The group will be chaired by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and membership will include other cabinet secretaries or their designates, as well as representatives from government budget, trade, environment, and consumer protection agencies.

The text of the executive order, posted on the White House Web site, says the group's mission is to review current procedures that are intended to ensure the safety of imported products, assess the level of cooperation with foreign governments and manufacturers about their inspection and certification procedures, and consider whether changes are needed.

Bush also asked the working group to identify additional measures US importers can take to enhance import safety and identify best practices for selecting foreign manufacturers, inspecting foreign production facilities, and inspecting the goods before distribution in the United States.

See also:

Jul 19 FAO/WHO press release

Jul 18 press release on Bush executive order

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