What’s Cooking? Campaigning for Safer Food

April 06, 2015| By Ross Campbell | Life | English

Each and every day we are reminded of the importance of healthy eating. A good diet provides a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins. The health benefits of a diet rich in fresh produce, fruits and vegetables is stressed in state sponsored programs and clinical guidelines.

Yet for many people, the food they eat poses a direct threat to their health because it is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, prions, viruses, toxins or chemicals. In countries where people are unable to store provisions adequately, or who must cook using tainted water, the health consequences of eating unsafe food can be severe.

These effects are amplified for those whose health status is already fragile - the elderly and the very young. Unsafe food causes diarrhoeal diseases, viral diseases (contaminated bush meat was linked to the recent outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease), reproductive and developmental problems and cancers.

Globally, millions of people in vulnerable populations fall ill and die as a direct result of eating unsafe food, prompting the World Health Organization to choose the theme “Food Safety” for World Health Day. The aim is to stimulate collaboration between governments, producers and consumers to improve food safety and protect more people from the risks of food poisoning and foodborne diseases.

And much needs to be done. Developed nations measure the economic impact in days of lost productivity and the costs of medical care. (Ironically, the rise of antimicrobial resistance - when bacteria can’t be controlled with antibiotic drugs - threatens to undermine their gilded health status). Poorer nations, with over-stretched or inadequate health services, count the toll in more visceral ways and bury more dead.

The sophisticated logistics and high-end retailing enjoyed in developed countries does not necessarily provide immunity from the ill-effects of careless food handling and food safety remains an important public health issue. The US monitor, FoodNet, reports no overall decrease in incidence; indeed, infections caused by Campylobacter and Vibrio are increasing.1 Listeria, Salmonella and Yersinia are also common pathogens involved in cross-contamination.

Although most “food poisoning” causes only mild, transient symptoms, it can be life threatening. Around one in six people in the US fall sick each year and around 3,000 die as a result of foodborne diseases.2 The highest incidence of infection is amongst very young children while the percentage of fatalities is highest in the over-65s.3 These findings underline the need for targeted action to address food safety gaps.

Produce dating helps people avoid food that may cause harm because it is past its prime. We are well-advised to dispose of food that is clearly spoiled - vegetables with skins turned slimy by colonies of bacteria or bread with black-coloured bloom. Yet an over-cautious approach to disposal can also mean perfectly edible food is wasted - a luxury that many people cannot afford.

For life insurers some broader issues are raised by the theme of “safe food”. While some foods, particularly non-starchy vegetables and fruits, are thought to help prevent certain types of cancer, not all food choices are healthy. Processed and sugary foodstuffs are blamed for driving a global obesity epidemic. Food with added salt and fat is linked to morbid vascular disease. The association between red meat intake, meat cooking methods and elevated cancer risk is the subject of ongoing study.

For underwriters, traditional evidence sources are unlikely to reveal valid information about the diets of life insurance applicants. We must trust consumers to make healthy food choices, or to disclose any medical consequences of not doing so.

The gradual adoption of wearable fitness devices - some of which allow the recording of eating habits - suggests potential for diet to be included as a risk indicator in underwriting assessments in the future. Meanwhile, everyone should be made aware of the dangers of failing to handle their food safely.

Food safety is the theme for World Health Day on 7 April 2015. The World Health Organization links unsafe food to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people annually. It recommends people should be informed to ensure the food on their plate is safe to eat.

  1. Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) is a collaboration of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10 state health departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  2. CDC estimates.
  3. “Incidence and Trends of Infection with Pathogens Transmitted Commonly Through Food - Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, 10 U.S. Sites, 1996–2012”, CDC, 2013.


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