Nations must work together more closely to eliminate unsafe foods which cause ill health and death, cost developing countries nearly $100 billion dollars a year and hamper sustainable development, global leaders said, according to a United Nations statement on Tuesday.
"There is no food security without food safety," UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva told the opening session of the First International Food Safety Conference in Addis Ababa.
"Safeguarding our food is a shared responsibility. We must all play our part. We must work together to scale up food safety in national and international political agendas," da Silva said at the event organised by the African Union, FAO, the UN World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals causes more than 600 million people to fall ill and 420,000 to die worldwide every year, according to the UN.
"Unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, but has not received the political attention it deserves," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
"Ensuring people have access to safe food takes sustained investment in stronger regulations, laboratories, surveillance and monitoring. In our globalised world, food safety is everyone's issue," he added.
Illness linked to unsafe food put strain on healthcare systems and damage economies, trade and tourism. The impact of unsafe food costs low- and middle-income economies around $95 billion in lost productivity each year, said the statement issued by FAO.
A central theme of the Addis Ababa conference is that food safety systems need to keep pace with the way food is produced and consumed, according to the statement.
Information technologies, shared information, training and education play a key role in making food safe and in facing current challenges posed by climate change, the globalisation of food production, the growing global population and urbanization, said the statement.
Conference participants agreed that food safety must be a paramount goal at every stage of the food chain, from production to harvest, processing, storage, distribution, preparation and consumption, the statement said.
"Without safe foods, it is not possible to achieve food security," African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat told the conference.
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo highlighted the key role played by trade in eradicating poverty.
"Trade is an important force to lift people out of poverty... when we reconvene in Geneva in April we will consider these issues in more depth," Azevedo said.
A follow-up event, the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade, which will focus on interlinkages between food safety and trade, is due to be hosted by WTO in Geneva on April 23-24.
Around 130 countries are taking part in the two-day conference in Addis Ababa, including agriculture, health, and trade ministers. Leading scientific experts and representatives from partner agencies, consumer, food producer and civil society organisations and the private sector are also taking part.
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