23 million people falling ill from unsafe food each year in Europe is just the tip of the iceberg
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Copenhagen, 5 June 2019
Every minute, 44 people – more than 23 million per year – fall sick from eating contaminated food, and an estimated 4700 per year lose their lives. This is according to a review of the most recent available data entitled “The burden of foodborne diseases in the WHO European Region”, and it represents only the tip of the iceberg: the true number of cases is unknown.
These findings are presented on the occasion of the first-ever World Food Safety Day on 7 June 2019. The WHO European Region will join partners across the world in celebrating the day to raise awareness and promote action to improve food safety.
“Every country around the world, from small to big, from rich to poor, has suffered from foodborne illnesses, and Europe is no exception. The scale of the challenge posed by foodborne disease is striking, indicating the importance of preventing and mitigating risks to food safety,” says Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.
“Food is a global affair with a food chain that wraps around the planet. A simple meal can easily contain ingredients from multiple continents and its safety depends on international collaboration. World Food Safety Day is an unprecedented opportunity to call on governments to strengthen the systems that guarantee safe food, across sectors and across Europe and the world.”
15 million cases of norovirus infection
Unsafe food is responsible for millions of sick days, and can sometimes lead to lasting or severe illness, hospitalization and even death. The overall burden of foodborne disease in the Region is estimated to be 413 020 disability-adjusted life-years, meaning years in which a person’s life is affected by a disease.
A variety of bacteria, viruses, parasites and chemical hazards have potentially serious consequences not only for human health but also for the economy and environment.
According to the estimates, the most frequent causes of foodborne illness are diarrhoeal disease agents. The most common is norovirus with an estimated 15 million cases, followed by Campylobacter spp., which is responsible for almost 5 million cases.
Non-typhoidal Salmonella spp. causes the majority of deaths. Other major causes of deaths are Campylobacter spp., norovirus, Listeria monocytogenes and Echinococcus multilocularis. Overall in the Region, diarrhoeal diseases are responsible for 94% of foodborne illnesses, 63% of related deaths and 57% of the disease burden.
Teamwork is the solution
“Food is something people don’t think about until it goes wrong, yet unacceptable numbers of people are being subjected to the misery of foodborne illness, sometimes with serious consequences – especially for the very young and very old,” explains Dr Dorit Nitzan, Acting Regional Emergency Director at WHO/Europe.
“From handwashing, cooking and storing food properly, to surveillance and international regulation – every piece of the food safety puzzle affects lives, economies and whole communities,” Dr Nitzan concludes. “World Food Safety Day is our opportunity to say out loud that it’s teamwork that will make the difference.”
The new World Food Safety Day was created by means of a resolution adopted at the United Nations General Assembly. To promote World Food Safety Day, WHO/Europe is working alongside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Codex Alimentarius. Codex Alimentarius is a global organization that supports food safety with a collection of standards, guidelines and codes of practice established by WHO and FAO to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in the food trade.