Food Safety, from Farm to Fork: Are We Being Careful Enough?
Food is not only a basic need for human survival, but also an unparalleled source of pleasure for many people in the world. Hence, a dilemma is presented when this very means to sustain life becomes hazardous.
This epidemic of unsafe food has engulfed human lives for centuries and is now regarded as a public health concern across borders everywhere—not only in terms of morbidity and mortality, but also due to the billions of dollars of medical and social cost attributed to these food-borne pathogens. According to an estimate from World Health Organization, food-borne and water-borne diarrheal diseases have killed about 2.2 million people annually around the globe, of which 1.9 million are children.
While globalization has increased the production and trade of food, it has also simultaneously increased the incidence of food contamination. Disease causing organisms are transmitted more commonly by an interconnected global food chain, further compounded by rapid urbanization. Neglect of safety at any step in the food delivery chain, whether at a local or international level, can contaminate food at any stage from farm to fork. Presence of microparticles, pathogenic organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) and toxins produced by microbes are all possible contaminants of food and thus impact food safety.
In addition, abrupt changes to dietary habits, mass catering, long food supply chains and poor hygienic practices are found to be major risk factors. Apart from this, new animal feeding practices (use of meat and bone meals from cattle), changes in animal husbandry, increase in international trade, changes in agronomic processes (use of untreated sewage for irrigation and use of fertilizers), changes in food technology (use of refrigerators to prolong shelf life), increase in travel, and other such lifestyle factors have also contributed to the emergence of new food-borne pathogens.
The situation in Pakistan is exceptionally disastrous; a study conducted in Karachi in 30 randomly selected retail meat shops revealed 84% of the meat samples to be contaminated with potential pathogens, including Klebsiella, Enterobacter, Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus sabtilis. 16% of biofilm pathogens were found in raw meat. Besides this, the environment itself was found to play a major role in the spread of antimicrobial resistance among food-borne bacteria.
Another study conducted from 2002 to 2004 explored the prevalence of Campylobacter in meat, milk and other food commodities, ultimately indicating the highest level of Campylobacter infection (48%) in chicken and vegetable or fruit salad. Moreover, the detection of heavy metals in soils and vegetable samples from Gilgit and other northern areas of Pakistan confirmed high concentrations of cadmium, copper and zinc exceeding their permissible limits in soil samples.
Aflatoxins have been found to be associated with cancer in human. Various studies conducted in different parts of Pakistan indicated high concentrations of aflatoxins in various food samples. In a sample of chilies from Punjab collected in 2008-2010, the concentration was found to be 33% in whole chilies and 40% in ground chilies, which was far higher than the European Union (EU) statuary limit.
Similarly high levels of aflatoxins, mould and ochratoxins were found in dried fruits, nuts, rice, cereals, beans, sorghum, kidney beans, split pea, chick peas, cow peas and soy beans. High levels were also reported in wheat, barley and maize. Alarmingly, in another study from Punjab, the levels of pesticides were touching the threshold limit in rice and fruits, indicating a point for immediate action to protect the lives of people consuming these food items.
Unfortunately, the country does not have any legal structure or scaffold equipped to deal comprehensively with food safety. Analysis of current food safety policies and regulations reveals a gap between standards and code of practice in most aspects of food production. However, the country does have some bundles of old but powerful laws meant to tackle certain aspects of food safety, such as control of production, distribution and supply of food, but their implementation and enforcement is nonetheless questionable.
Moreover, there is a lack of trained personnel and technical resources to ensure food safety measures at each level. In addition, a general lack of central coordination and reliance on local government bodies makes the condition even more deplorable. Evidence shows that enforcement of legislation exerts a high impact on adherence to safety standards while being the most cost-effective measure in the world.
Other important aspects that need to be modified on a national level include appropriate allocation of resources and budget to support stronger food safety systems. There is a need to rigorously monitor and regulate existing food safety measures and develop new standards in the chain of production. Efforts of the government should be targeted towards creating surveillance systems to detect food outbreaks and a conjunct immediate-response system in case of emergency. Transparency in risk communication should also be ensured to prevent food-borne diseases.
People working in farms should be required to take their own measures to prevent animal infections. Moreover, they should be vigilant in preventing contamination of food by people, pets, pests and pesticides. Everyone in the food delivery chain should understand and comply with their responsibility to keep food safe, including the farmer, processor, vendor and consumer.
Finally, safety at home is the most important step to prevent disease outbreaks. By using safe water, exercising proper washing and handling, using sanitary food preparation methods, separating raw and cooked food, storing food at appropriate temperatures, and thoroughly cooking food with regard to temperature and time, people at home can promote safety. Awareness should be created to lower exposure to carcinogenic chemicals by avoiding overheating and frying repeatedly in same oil.
Healthy and safe food is the basic right of all human beings living on this planet. However, attainment of such rights in a country like Pakistan presents a considerable challenge. It seems that food safety laws are not fascinating enough to gain the attention of government officials and law-enforcing agencies. Due to this lack of priority and concentrated actions, and absence of funds and consumer protection bodies, it is extremely difficult to address the need for safe food for the residents of this country.
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