Food safety remains a constant challenge, says WHO

International team work is needed to keep food as safe as possible

Statement by WHO Regional Director for Europe, Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab

Copenhagen, 11 June 2011

The enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) outbreak in Germany has been the most serious ever recorded in the WHO European Region. Thirty-five people have died, and hundreds are still ill: this is the outbreak’s sad toll on human health so far. The economic impact of this outbreak is still emerging. It has been a very difficult time for the German people and their institutions; and on behalf of WHO, I wish to express to them our sympathy and solidarity. 

We are very pleased to hear that the German authorities have made significant progress tracking down the vehicle of the outbreak. Control measures have been put in place and further investigations are being conducted. Thanks to the work done by the investigators in Germany, the outbreak is now better understood and appears to be showing signs of decreasing. 

Food safety remains a constant challenge for everyone. This outbreak has reinforced the importance of speed, coordination, information sharing and preparedness. This is emphasized in the International Health Regulations (IHR), to which all countries in the WHO European Region have already committed. Many are improving their laboratory capacity, and national emergency response planning. Countries should not only maintain but also step up their surveillance of foodborne disease and food contamination, as well as ensure good prevention and control systems all along the food chain, from farm to fork. International teamwork is needed to ensure that food is as safe as possible, and help restore trust in the safety of food in the entire Region, particularly as the food chain crosses borders. 

From the beginning of this outbreak, WHO has fulfilled its mandate under the IHR by monitoring the EHEC outbreak in Germany and ensuring the exchange of information between countries in the Region, within the European Union and globally. We have done this in partnership with national and international authorities. We also value the contribution of WHO’s collaborating centres very much. 

WHO/Europe supports Member States in building capacity to manage food safety challenges. The WHO European Action Plan for Food and Nutrition Policy 2007–2012 is an important guide for policy-makers and health professionals: it promotes a wide range of actions for food safety. 

Food safety is everyone’s business: from the food producers, distributors and retailers, and restaurateurs to consumers. Food producers must adhere to food safety regulations and apply strict hygiene measures to ensure that products are as safe as possible. To make food safer, all who handle food can play their part. The rules are very simple and easy to follow: washing hands before eating and after using the toilet, thoroughly washing fresh produce that is to be consumed raw with clean water, avoiding cross-contamination and cooking and storing food properly. In most situations, such daily routines will effectively reduce the risk of illness from contaminated food.

I would like to acknowledge work done with the European Union and its specialized agencies, as well as WHO colleagues round the world, who have provided active behind-the-scenes support and timely information to help building the global picture of this outbreak.

WHO remains available to help, and will continue to share information with its Member States globally so that countries are promptly informed and can make appropriate public health recommendations.