The first ever Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators opened this week in Marrakesh, Morocco, “seeking ways to improve the safety of food worldwide at every step of the food production chain, from farmers, through processors and retailers, to consumers,” according to a joint statement by the UNs’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Three hundred delegates from 120 countries and organisations participate in the gathering.

“New challenges in food safety have arisen as a result of changes in microbiological and chemical hazards, shifts in consumption patterns, urbanisation, new food production methods, modern technology and increases in international trade and travel,” according to the UN agencies’ statement. It added that food-borne disease is of great concern: according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, more than two million people – principally children – die every year from diarrhoea caused by consuming contaminated food and water. Even in industrialised countries, as much as one-third of the population experiences food-borne disease every year. “Food safety, a critical area of public health, is a high priority for both WHO and FAO.”

WHO Director General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland stated that many countries are reporting significant increases in food-borne diseases. He added that WHO and FAO and UN member states “are working hard to develop new evidence-based, preventative strategies to lower disease risk throughout the whole food production chain.”

The main hazards are well identified and there are proven, cost-effective measures that protect populations against them. Some countries, according to the UN agencies, have intensified efforts against certain pathogens, and have obtained good results in five to ten years. “The first step is for a government to set food safety high on the political agenda.”

FAO and WHO claim that food safety problems can have serious consequences on a country’s economy: According to the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), gross public expenditures as a result of the mad cow disease crisis were an estimated £3.4bn (US$4.8bn) from 1996-2000. Food safety problems hurt developing countries by hindering their economic development. Food exports, an important source of foreign exchange and revenue, are refused if they do not meet the standards of importing countries resulting in the loss of jobs and agriculture industries of developing countries Productivity suffers in all sectors “because so many workers fall ill, and international tourism cannot achieve its full potential.”

FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf maintains that food safety is a shared responsibility of developed and developing countries: “With the increasing globalisation of trade in food products, health requirements applied by importing countries must seek to protect consumers and not to raise technical barriers to trade.” He urged developed countries to provide the developing countries with their technical and financial support.

By Aaron Priel, correspondent