Food safety – the need of the hour.

7th April 2015 World Health Day

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World Health day has just gone by. Every year W.H.O. picks a theme that highlights an important area of public health.  This year the theme is food safety which focuses on the need of safe food that is free from microbes, viruses and chemicals.

According to statistics about 2.2 million people in the world, including many children, die annually due to food-borne diseases. Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancer. It’s about time we address the issue of food safety which is a growing public health concern. In order to tackle this problem we have to work collectively towards it. Everybody has a role to play.

Food hazards at the farm level constitute indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides which has grown 170 times over the last 50 years. To tackle this problem the government is promoting the use of bio- pesticides and organising training programmes for farmers to teach them how much to use and when to use.

At the Storage and Distribution level food adulteration has become very common. These may be chemicals and additives or inferior quality ingredients. Strict vigilance is required at every step. It is estimated that 20 to 25% of food stocks are lost due to lack of storage facilities. 70% of the items are sold lose in markets.  Grains, pulses and cereals should be packaged and sold, and for fresh fruits, vegetables and street food standards need to be set for sale and preparation.

When buying processed food, reading the food labels is of utmost importance considering the various scandals and risks surrounding processed food. Most products are loaded with saturated fat, sugar and sodium that are increasing the burden of non- communicable diseases more than ever. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India was established in 2006 and has been conforming with WHO standards to ensure proper labelling and licensing. “Food safety is the forefront of policy making. Every penny spent on making food safe is equivalent to a reduction in every penny spent on health care. We need to strengthen our laboratory infrastructure at state level to maintain standards and detect discrepancies earlier,” said Mr YS Malik, CEO, FSSAI.

Besides this, how we handle food at home also makes a difference. Clean surfaces and hygienic surroundings are the basics that one should follow.

The WHO Global Action Plan for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases 2013 – 2020 will stress on banning all forms of tobacco and alcohol advertising, replacing trans-fat with polyunsaturated fats and reducing the level of sugar and salt added to food or even consumed on daily basis.

On the other hand, the consumer needs to be more aware to be able to make informed choices. The World Health Organization recommends the following five keys to safer food.

  1. Keep clean: We know the importance of a clean and hygienic environment, but sometimes we tend to overlook the basics. Microorganisms can easily be transferred from dirty hands, wiping cloths and utensils (especially cutting boards) and the slightest contact can cause food borne illnesses. Washing and sanitizing all surfaces and kitchen equipment is highly essential.
  2. Keep food at safe temperatures: Do not leave cooked food for more than 2 hours at room temperature. Refrigerate all cooked food below 5 degree Celsius. Keep cooked food piping hot. Do not store food in the refrigerator for too long and avoid thawing at room temperature. Microorganisms can multiply very quickly. By storing food below 5 degree Celsius and above 60 degree Celsius, the growth of bacteria can be controlled.
  3. Separate raw and cooked food: This reduces the risk of cross contamination. Juices from raw foods like poultry, meat and seafood can contaminate fresh vegetables and fruits when stored together. Raw meat could carry bacteria and should be stored in plastic bag to prevent juices from dripping on other foods. Cooked meat products, dairy products and egg dishes (high protein foods) should be stored carefully, these can be easily contaminated. Eggs should be refrigerated as soon as possible. Never place or serve cooked food in the same utensils that held raw foods.
  4. Cook thoroughly: Cooking kills most of the dangerous microorganisms. Previous studies have shown that cooking food at a temperature of 70 degree Celsius can ensure safe consumption. It is especially important to cook meat, poultry, eggs and seafood thoroughly and also reheat cooked food thoroughly. Cooking reduces the risk of food poisoning. Inadequate cooking is one if the common causes of food poisoning. Cover your dishes as steam promotes cooking. Take extra precaution when using raw eggs in batters, dips or spreads. Cooking in a microwave or oven, may sometimes leave the food partially uncooked. To avoid this, place thicker items towards the edge and stir and rotate while cooking.
  5. Use safe water and raw materials: Raw materials like water and ice are some of the most common sources of bacteria. Using clean water, pasteurized milk and checking for expiry dates are simple ways in which we can ensure food safety.

Food safety is a shared responsibility and the need of the hour!

Source: Based on a report by World Health Organization (http://www.who.int/foodsafety/en/)

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