Tue, May 25, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Toxic foods killing thousands, UN told

CONTAMINATION Industry officials and consumer activists from 42 Asian and Pacific Rim countries met in Malaysia yesterday to counter the threat of food-borne diseases


Countries must try to ensure food is produced, handled and distributed more safely to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide each year from food-borne illnesses, officials told a UN-backed conference yesterday.

Recent reports of toxic maize that is believed to have killed dozens of people in Kenya and the possibility of salmonella in raw almonds exported by a US company has underscored fears about how contaminated food can threaten people's health and disrupt international trade, said Hartwig de Haen of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

``From the farm to the final consumer, the risk of food-related outbreaks needs to be reduced,'' de Haen told government regulators, food industry officials and consumer activists from 42 Asian and Pacific Rim countries at the launch of a food safety conference.

De Haen, the FAO's assistant director-general, noted that the US Food and Drug Administration has in the past week recalled 13 million raw almonds distributed by California-based Paramount Farms Inc because of the possibility of salmonella. The almonds were distributed nationwide and in the UK, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico and Taiwan.

De Haen said the death toll of food-borne diseases globally was "staggering," especially in developing countries where poor governments lack funds to monitor food safety and people's choices of food sources are often limited.

Severe diarrhea kills 1.8 million people annually, de Haen said. High casualties can also surface from smaller, sporadic outbreaks such as a suspected mold contamination of maize in eastern Kenya that is believed to have killed up to 40 people so far.

The four-day conference in Seremban, 60km south of Kuala Lumpur, is aimed at planning measures for countries to create effective food safety systems, heighten consumer awareness and strengthen regional cooperation in investigating food-borne diseases.

Outbreaks linked to food production can badly strain health care systems, as demonstrated by recent regional health emergencies such as bird flu and SARS, said Han Tieru, the World Health Organization's representative for Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.

"Our region is not immune from food safety concerns," Tieru said.

"Even though avian flu and SARS are clearly not food-borne diseases, they are all in some way related to the way food is produced or how animals are handled in the food market," he said.

Avian flu originated in chickens, while scientists suspect that SARS was passed to humans from civet cats and other mongoose-like animals sold in live food markets in southern China.

Malaysian Deputy Health Minister Abdul Latiff Ahmad said his country was concerned about "the globalization of food trade," which has triggered international health scares in recent years over cases of dioxin contamination, mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease.

Delegates are also expected to discuss measures to curb the impact of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, antibiotics in seafood and poultry and other weaknesses in food quality control.

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