Understanding Food Safety Hazards and Risks

Why look at food hazards and risks?  Safe food for all is an  over-arching motto of all GMS Agriculture Ministries. Promoting public understanding of mitigation and prevention of foodborne diseases is essential.  

Countries all over the world remain susceptible to food borne diseases.  In both developed and developing countries, large numbers of people are affected by various types of foodborne diseases, many of which are highly under-reported. Symptoms include, among others, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. There are also claims that there may be long-term consequences such as cancers, liver and kidney failures, and brain disorders, among others.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 600 million or one out of every 10 suffer from food borne diseases globally each year. This is why food safety is an important public health issue, particularly in developing countries which are affected disproportionately in terms of numbers of illnesses and severity of consequences. For example for WHO, the Western Pacific Region is ranked second in the world after Africa for food borne diseases, with as many as 50,000 deaths and 125 million people becoming ill each year. 

The Greater Mekong Subregion covers around 2.6 million square kilometers bounded by the Mekong River and has a combined population of about 326 million people. With so many mouths to feed, the issue of food safety in the GMS has dominated the agricultural policy agenda over the last two years.  With the just concluded annual new year festivities and the forthcoming Chinese/Tet New Year in a few weeks, the concern for food safety becomes even more acute for Public Health and Agriculture Ministries.   

Microbes, like nororvirus and non-typhoidal Salmonella, two of the most common foodborne illnesses, are biological foodborne hazard. Biological hazards include pathogenic bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi.

Chemical foodborne hazards include harmful natural or artificial chemical substances. For example, pesticides toxic to humans may contaminate produce during cultivation or during post-harvest processing. Key foodborne chemical hazards include heavy metals, natural toxins such as mycotoxins, products used for growth promotion, prophylaxis and treatment of animals, and plant protection products.

There are also physical food safety hazards. Examples of physical hazards include foreign objects like soil, stones, glass that may find their way into the food.

Food can be contaminated with harmful agents at any step in the food chain requiring effective controls to be in place from farm to the table to effectively mitigate food safety risks. Thus, it is important to involve actors throughout food supply chains: input suppliers, producers, processors, retailers and consumers.


Pesticide Risks and Hazards: The Thai Case

Codex Alimentarius, which was established in the early 1960s and to which all GMS countries are members, is a collection of internationally recognized standards, guidelines and codes of practice developed to improve the safety, quality and fairness of trade in food internationally. In June 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) at its conference passed the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management which is considered the global framework for all public and private organizations for the production, regulation and management of pesticides.  This global framework is currently in place to guide all entities although this is subject to national policy/legislation.

On 24 November 2017, the Thai Pesticide Action Network held a press conference to announce that 64% of 13 food products that they surveyed contained chemicals that exceed the maximum residue limit set by law. The three top toxic chemical residues were:  Herbicide paraquat: 38% of residues of which the Codex limit is 0.01mg/kg; glyphosate: 6% of residue, and atrazine: 4% of residues (used as weed killers). Codex Alimentarius has set the limit at 0.01 mg/kg for paraquat herbicide, at 0.02 mg/kg for glyphosate and at 1 mg/kg for Atrazine.

The fruits with high residues were: imported and domestic grapes, pineapples and papayas. The vegetables which were not safe to eat included Chinese kale (pak kana), pennyworth (bai bua bok) and climbing wattle (cha om).

In 2016, Thailand imported 31.5 million kilograms of paraquat, 2.1 million kg of chlorpyrifos,  and 61.8 million kg of glyphosate, already banned by PRC and Viet Nam and 38 other countries. The Thai Public Health Ministry even announced that over 50 countries have already agreed to ban paraquat as well as chlorpyrifos.  

These indicate that inappropriate use of agro-chemicals in production in Thailand remains high and presents considerable risk to consumers and food exporters.

Aside from human health, excessive use of such pesticides are also bad for the Earth and the environment and greatly contribute to environmental pollution.


Food Safety Hazards, Risk and Health Impact: the Vietnamese Case

In Vietnam, 373 outbreaks of foodborne illness were reported, with over 10,000 individual cases and 66 deaths between 2014-2015, according to the World Bank. Considering the high levels of underreporting of foodborne illness, the true figures may be tens of times higher. Pathogens accounted for 42% of outbreaks, the remainder were identified as natural toxins (28%), chemical hazards (4%) or were unknown (26%).

According to the above  World Bank report, of the countries in the region, Vietnam has  high high rates of bacterial contamination in its pork products by comparison with developed countries. Pork is the most preferred meat in the country and the Vietnamese in fact have among the highest pork consumption globally. Some consumption practices practices in Vietnam that involve for example dishes that utilize eating of raw animal ingredients like animal blood are particularly high risk.

One notable example of a chemical hazard is the β-agonists, a group of toxic chemicals which are widely used in pig production in the country even though these are banned in many markets. Further, inappropriate use of veterinary drugs such as antibiotics in animal production can be associated with increasing antibiotic resistance among pathogens of importance to human and animal health—a global concern—and may lead to unacceptable residues in food products.

Contamination of vegetables with hazards like pathogenic E. coli is also a concern, typically associated with use of biofertilizers and waste water in cultivation and cross-contamination from raw meat and untreated water in food preparation.

Thus, the measures to address the major food borne diseases in the country would include changing some of these consumption patterns by consumers to lessen the risk of such food habits and improving the sanitary and hygienic measures of preparing food.

At the national level, improvements in the collection of data on those affected by food borne diseases, and building of capacities, both human and operational at all levels are required for government to develop institutional and practical measures to mitigate food safety risks in concert with wider stakeholders.

As food traceability is key to improving food safety, the MARD of Viet Nam had earlier piloted an LOA with ADB RETA 8163 in 2014-15 involving a farmers cooperative producing chickens. The pilot worked successfully as the dressed chickens sold were traceable to a particular farmers cooperative pilot demo farm. A system was developed to track the chickens from production to processing then delivery to the particular stores participating in the pilot project for the sale of the dressed chickens to the consumers.

In January 2018, MARD will be engaged in another project on agro-food traceability which will bring together producers, SMEs and the private sector together with the government in a stakeholder consultation to discuss and understand the issues and key concepts of food safety. This will immediately be followed by capability-building of technical personnel and a pilot implementation to ensure that the training has been internalized and that the systems available for traceability using barcodes can be mainstreamed.