Douglas L. Archer

In late February, the World Health Organization (WHO) held a Strategic Planning Meeting on Food Safety in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting was a direct result of the 53rd World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting of May 2000. WHA resolved that food safety is an essential public health function, and supported a resolution by the Director General of WHO to give greater priority to food safety. WHA made several recommendations, one of which was for WHO to convene a preliminary strategic planning meeting of food safety experts and interested international and nongovernmental organizations.

The driving force for the WHA push for increased food safety likely came from several quarters. These include an apparent increased incidence and severity of foodborne infections and the significant economic consequences of such events, especially in developing nations; the distrust in some quarters for products derived from biotechnology; and the continuing problems of potentially harmful chemicals, natural and man-made, in the food supply. The meeting was held with a backdrop of the BSE scare in Europe, and the seriousness of the situation was further underscored by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

The core of the meeting consisted of experts representing a cross-section of developed and developing nations. Also participating were observer organizations and permanent and temporary WHO representatives. Working papers on microbiological hazards, surveillance, chemical hazards, biotechnology, regulation, risk communication, and developing food safety capacity provided a framework and fueled subsequent discussions.

Participants unanimously agreed that an intrinsic factor in the success or failure of WHO in this and other activities is the trust placed in WHO by all agencies, and particularly consumers. WHO is regarded as an independent bastion of expertise and credibility. Members and participants urged that every possible measure always be taken to protect WHO’s stature and admired attributes. Members and participants also noted that improving food safety is an enormously complex task that must involve an interdisciplinary approach by all relevant agencies worldwide. It was noted that any strategic advice on so complex a matter as food safety must be periodically reviewed and revised as new science dictates, gaps in implementation are identified, or new priorities arise.

Risk analysis was recognized to be a useful scientific tool for determining priorities, and a modular approach would be the most advantageous. Surveillance systems worldwide need to be bolstered. Data from the surveillance of foodborne disease and attendant epidemiological studies must be employed across as much of the food chain as technically possible to support risk assessment and its product, risk estimates. The most accurate possible risk estimates should be the basis for food safety priorities and intervention strategies. These risk estimates may drive changes in food control systems that run contrary to the thinking of some stakeholders. Mechanisms for open discussions among stakeholders with very diverse opinions must be found. Certainly the concept of “acceptable risk” is one that will be the focus of debate.

To optimize risk analysis, a major scientific focus must be on hazard identification. WHO proposes that foodborne disease surveillance networks be set up to collect and interpret surveillance data from all parts of the food chain. Hazards of concern to individual nations can be thought of as “local hazards,” while those of supranational interest can be thought of as “global hazards.” WHO should take the lead in identifying global hazards (e.g., cholera, Salmonella). Hazard identification in the context of this strategic planning exercise goes well beyond microbiological hazards, and includes chemical hazards, such as GMOs, functional foods, and supplements. Surveillance by sentinel sites (combined epidemiologic and laboratory surveillance) should be optimized, using the newest tools such as genomics and proteomics in attempts to identify newly emerging pathogens.

WHO was urged to assist in capacity building, including promoting teamwork and increased collaboration at all levels; identifying country-specific needs; and providing assistance to meet those needs. One possible approach to capacity building is the establishment of regional laboratories. Another component of capacity building includes keeping food safety high on the political agenda of member states. WHO is uniquely positioned to promote the use of tools such as cost-effectiveness of prevention activities, and cost-benefit analyses.

As a highly visible, trusted, credible, and inclusive entity, WHO is truly unique in its position to positively affect worldwide public health. It will need to constantly improve its risk communications skills as the world looks to it to answer more and more complex questions. It will need to utilize all possible risk communication expertise available, and develop an effective risk communication strategy.

No doubt, this strategic planning meeting will give rise to many more implementation meetings. Food safety is a global issue that will require global solutions based on global expertise. WHO is the most logical focal point. Progress in implementing a global strategic plan for food safety will be interesting to watch, but better to participate in. IFT should be there.

Professor and Chair
Food Science and Human Nutrition Dept.
University of Florida