From the townships of South Africa to the five-star resorts of Egypt, food borne pathogens lurk undetected, attack victims without discrimination and often lead to preventable deaths.
Hazardous food and water pose life-threatening consequences worldwide, but Africa is disproportionately affected with the highest occurrences of food borne diseases: Every year, 91 million people are stricken, resulting in 137,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In perspective, the continent accounts for one-third of the food-related global death toll while it makes up only one-sixth of the global population, says Winta Sintayehu, Program Officer, for the African Union Commission.
This month, a delegation of leaders will meet to strategize how food can successfully navigate an obstacle course of contamination from production to consumption.
The African Union (AU) is partnering with WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to host the first International Food Safety Conference, which will be February 12–13. A cross section of dignitaries from heads of state to civil society will converge at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the high-level meeting.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is expected to attend the inaugural conference with outgoing AU chairman President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and incoming AU chairman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Also slated are United Nations officials FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva and WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, along with ministers of agriculture, health and trade.
Experts from research, academia and the private sector will join the dialog to discuss the benefits of investing in safe food, says Paul Garwood, a WHO spokesman. “Safe and sustainable food systems in the context of a changing climate and science, innovation and digital transformations for food safety” will also be key topics, Garwood adds.
The WHO Food Safety report from October 2017 stated the urgency for keeping pace with global food production: “Food supply chains now cross multiple national borders. Good collaboration between governments, producers and consumers helps ensure food safety.”
This two-day conference comes five years after the AU Assembly in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, when members made a declaration to end hunger and halve post-harvest losses by year 2025.
“Without adequately addressing food safety issues, Africa will not be able to effectively attain the Malabo Declaration,” says Sintayehu, adding that this meeting is an opportunity to scale up the AU’s commitment to reduce poverty and increase intra-Africa trade by year 2063.
“The African Union considers that raising food safety and quality standards at par with the rest of the world is foundational to make African agriculture a competitive and vibrant sector that promotes trade and agribusiness.”
Haven for Food Hazards
In January 2017, South Africans began falling ill at an alarming rate. By the end of 2017, South Africa’s Minister of Health, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, declared an outbreak of listeriosis, a bacteria found in unpasteurized dairy products, raw vegetables and processed meats.
In March 2018, the origin of the outbreak was identified as the production facility of Tiger Brand’s Enterprise Foods in Polokwane, Limpopo. Government officials issued a recall on its bologna, known locally as polony.
Listeria, though relatively low in occurrences, has harmful effects on children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems; it can also be fatal and cause unplanned abortions in pregnant women.
During the 18-month South African epidemic, more than 200 people died in what WHO referred to as the world’s largest listeria outbreak ever detected.
“Food borne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade,” states the WHO Food Safety report.
South Africa spent 12 million rand to deal with the listeria outbreak, according to Food Safety News, an online advocacy news site. An October 2018 study from the World Bank reports unsafe food cost low- and middle-income economies about $110 billion a year in lost productivity and medical expenses.
Regardless of socioeconomic conditions, no place is immune to food borne hazards.
“Consumers around the world have a right to expect that the foods they purchase and consume are safe and of high quality,” states the FAO Food Safety report. However, international travelers discover the hard way that this is no guarantee.
The swanky resort town of Hurghada, Egypt, is listed as an illness hotspot on SickHoliday.com, a travel-beware U.K.-based website.
Widely publicized cases include Luay Mohammed, a 7-year-old British boy on holiday with his family at Hurghada’s Tia Heights Hotel in July 2018. There, he contracted salmonella, which landed him a three-week stay in the intensive care unit.
A month later and 15 miles away, British tourists John and Susan Cooper died while vacationing at the luxurious Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hotel in Hurghada. The Egyptian general prosecutor said the cause of death was E. coli bacteria.
Just last month, Cristina Calafateanu, a 24-year-old bride, was diagnosed with bacterial infection shigella, after honeymooning at the Baron Palace Sahl Hasheesh in Hurghada. The newlywed returned home to the United Kingdom in a wheelchair.
Awareness Is Good Defense
This year, one in 10 people around the world will experience a food borne illness, according to WHO. Contaminated food and water cause more than 200 diseases with symptoms of stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea within 24 to 72 hours after eating. In some cases, symptoms can also arise weeks later and even cause cancer.
Among the most familiar food borne culprits, identified by WHO, are salmonella, affecting eggs, poultry and other animal products; E. coli, poisoning undercooked meat, unpasteurized milk, raw fruits and vegetables; and cholera, contaminating water, rice, vegetables and certain seafoods.
Health officials warn of food hazards beyond bacteria. Viruses (Hepatitis A), parasites (tapeworms) and prions (mad cow disease) are just as dangerous. Chemical substances (toxins), pollutants (pesticides) and heavy metals (lead or mercury) are also harmful.
“Food can become contaminated at any point of production and distribution, and the primary responsibility lies with food producers,” according to WHO’s Food Safety report.
“Yet a large proportion of food borne disease incidents are caused by foods improperly prepared or mishandled at home, in food service establishments or markets.”
Many people fail to wash their hands thoroughly, WHO reports, stressing the necessity of washing between the fingers, down to the fingertips, under the fingernails and up to the wrists. Also, if there is no access to soap or detergent, coal ash works as an alternative.
It’s important to remember that even when food looks, smells and tastes fine, it can still be dangerous, warns WHO officials. The organization offers this example: “It takes over 2.5 billion bacteria or germs to make 250 ml of water look cloudy, but in some cases it only takes 15-20 bacteria to make one sick.”
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