WHO Stakeholder Meeting for Foodborne Disease
Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG)
Geneva, Switzerland, 20 November 2008
I went to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, both to hold follow-up discussions with Dr Jørgen Schlundt, WHO Director of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, and to attend the Stakeholder meeting on the occasion of the 2nd meeting of the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group, FERG.
Dr Schlundt addressed our 14th World Congress of Food Science and Technology in Shanghai in October, in his Plenary Lecture 'International Food Safety- Recent Recognition of Joint Responsibilities'. Our Congress even provided the opportunity for North Korean food safety controllers to attend, and to meet with Dr Schlundt. Dr Schlundt then went on to Beijing, where he was seen on Chinese TV handing over the United Nations recommendations report to the Chinese Government, on improving food safety control systems; as well as the Central Party Committee filmed discussing the new food law. With the recent illness of some 50,000 Chinese children, in hospital with kidney problems, and 4 declared deaths, due to melamine contamination of milk products, the opportunity presents itself in China for major improvement in food control procedures. Both Dr Schlundt, and Prof Patrick Wall, the previous chair of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in his plenary address in Shanghai, stressed that foodborne disease and its control recognises no national boundaries, and we all have much to learn and improve from each other.
The WHO Stakeholder Meeting in Geneva was attended by some 30 stakeholders, together with some 30 FERG members and advisors. The stakeholders represented scientific journal editors, organisations involved in food safety and research, such as the European Commission and the International Food Policy Research Institute, several different Government representatives, food consumer organisations, as well as IUFoST. The meeting was opened by Dr David Heymann, Assistant Director-General, Health, Security and the Environment of WHO. He also pointed out that foodborne diseases are occurring in all countries and all parts of the world, highlighting BSE in the UK, toxic oil syndrome in Spain, as well as the recent Salmonella from Mexican peppers in the USA, and melamine in China and the Asian region. We then heard powerful personal testimony from Nancy Dolan, President of non-profit Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), who lost her six-year old son, her only child, in the 1993 'Jack in the Box' outbreak of E.coli 0157in ground beef in the USA, in which 700 children fell ill, and 4 died. She reinforced the message that it is not just those who suffer directly, and the social cost of medical care and lost work time, but the personal tragedies and burdens which continue. She strongly recommended that this FERG program not just be the five-year one presently running from 2007-2012, but that longer term work be undertaken.
Dr Schlundt informed us that the US$7M, which FERG was budgeted to cost over 5 years, was presently only funded, in cash and kind, to US$3.1M, so more funders are sought. The sums involved are minor compared with the estimated annual costs in the USA alone of some $7B caused by their 'top' 5 pathogens of Campylobacter, Salmonella, E.coli 0157:H7, E.coli non-0157 STEC, and Listeria monocytogenes (USDA Economic Research Service). Meanwhile, worldwide there were 2.2million child deaths from diarrhoea in 2004, many foodborne. In pointing this figure out, Dr Claudia Stein, the WHO Medical Officer (Epidemiologist), who ably runs and organises the FERG, also reminded us that 4 of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set by world leaders to assist developing countries, were affected directly by foodborne diseases.
At this second FERG Stakeholder Meeting, the Report of the first formal meeting of FERG was presented. This Report, which includes our IUFoST inputs as key stakeholder, is available from the WHO Secretariat in hardcopy, or can be downloaded at: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/foodborne_disease/burden_nov07/en
After the presentations, the meeting participants divided into 2 parallel working sessions, ably led by the WHO Secretariat, on Policy (Dr Stein) and Communications (Dr Tanja Kuchenmueller). I had been asked to act as Rapporteur for the Communication session, and report back to the Plenary Session. These were lively and interactive sessions, providing good inputs to WHO and FERG on how to achieve maximum effectiveness and impact for their important work. The Policy Group focussed on how to strengthen collaborative efforts through capacity building, increasing training, noting labour safety and rights, as well as the social burden of foodborne diseases. It was useful that other UN Agencies, including FAO, WTO, and the International Labour Organization (ILO), were participating actively in the meeting. The Communications Group was well attended by scientific journal editors, consumer organisations, and government representatives. It was clear that good communication was vital at all levels, in giving information to a wider public, particularly in developing countries where they are highly sought-after, through press releases, as well as submissions to peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals. We heard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, USA, how typing the appropriate number into the Google search engine took you directly to a major review of foodborne diseases published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases; quite an accolade for good scientific publishing! Good communication with government agencies is essential in finding the resources necessary to continue this vital work.
The FERG is well led by Prof Arie Havelaar, from the Netherlands, and has good international expertise. Our own IUFoST direct contribution from Fellows of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology has recently doubled, as Dr John Pitt, expert mycologist from CSIRO Australia, is joined by our recently elected Fellow, Dr Xiumei Liu, Chief Scientist for Nutrition and Food Safety at the Chinese Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, in Beijing. IUFoST is truly committed to helping in this important global WHO initiative to improve food safety, and therefore security for all mankind.
Professor Geoffrey Campbell-Platt is President (2008-10) of the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) and a Fellow of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology (IAFoST); E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org