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Food safety and security must become everyone’s business

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On the occasion of World Food Safety Day (WFSD), on June 7, 2020, experts are focusing on measures that can be taken to prevent, detect, and manage food-borne risks of COVID 19 and many such pandemics that can arise in future. Aarthi Janakiraman, Research Manager, TechVision, Frost & Sullivan informs that this year’s theme draws attention to the need for food safety and security in the various value chains. In a brief chat with Raelene Kambli, she explains the relationship between food safety and the public health issue

How can food safety become an important element in averting future pandemics? 

Most of the viruses are transmitted through close contact with an infected person or via respiratory droplets. While the former can be restricted by social distancing and other measures, respiratory droplets usually land on various surfaces and a person can get infected by touching the contaminated surfaces and touching their face, nose, etc., or even shaking hands. Food packaging or surfaces in F&B outlets, the skin of produce, etc. are some of the viable substrates for these droplets to settle in, making them, potential sources of contamination. Food safety, across the value chain, is, therefore, necessary, not only to reduce transmission of infections but also to ensure tracking and tracing of contamination and infection sources. The use of sensors, antimicrobial technologies, etc., is an integral part of food safety solutions, which can help in tracking, mitigating, and reducing incidences of pandemics. 

Moreover, changes in food production, distribution, and consumption can pose challenges to food safety systems. The emergence of new pathogens, antimicrobial resistance, etc. doesn’t help matters. With globalisation, the transmission of pathogens and its effects are very easy, as seen by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, food safety is vital to prevent and mitigate future pandemics. 

How important is food safety as a public health issue? 

Food safety is a precursor to food security. Making food safe, from farm-to-fork is needed to prevent contamination and spread of food-borne illnesses. According to WHO, unsafe food causes around 600 million cases of food-borne diseases and 420,000 deaths every year globally. Most of the food-borne illnesses are easily transmitted and can pose a burden to the public healthcare system. A classic example is the E. coli outbreak last year in the US that affected more than 5 states in the country in a very short time. Incidences of food-borne illness and outbreaks can impact various states and industries and impact the nation’s productivity apart from its burden on financial resources. 

How can healthcare providers become advocates for food safety? 

Healthcare providers are ideal candidates to help monitor incidences of food-borne illnesses and help in tracing sources to prevent outbreaks. They can also play a vital role in educating the public, especially the vulnerable groups, on the need for food safety and ways to ensure it. These professionals are also poised to lead the way as advocates to campaign and influence policy and regulatory changes with regards to food safety along with legal practitioners. 

What according to you should be the strategies that the government needs to follow to ensure food safety especially given the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Most of the governmental policies are focused on specific segments of the F&B and agriculture value chain. While efforts are being made to ensure that there are targeted programs for each stakeholder ecosystem, the benefits are not translated due to the complexity of the value chain in India. It is important to treat the entire agriculture and F&B value chain as interlinked and ensure food safety protocols are followed in each step to prevent adulteration, cross-contamination, and ensure food safety. 

Building proper supply chain infrastructure, capacity building to test for food safety, implementing food standards, and educating not only the public but also the stakeholders regarding the importance of food safety are high priorities for the government. The message should also highlight the all-encompassing nature of food safety that also includes the health and safety of workers, food handlers, F&B staff, etc. 

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