World Food Safety Day 2021: An Interview with the World Health Organization (WHO)

Thought LeadersFrancesco BrancaDirector, Department of Nutrition and Food SafetyWorld Health Organization (WHO)

AZoLifeSciences interviews Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters, for World Food Safety Day 2021.

Please could you introduce yourself and tell us about your role within the World Health Organization?

My name is Francesco Branca and I am the director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters.

Our department is responsible for setting the standards around safe and healthy foods, developing policies on how to support the implementation of standards in the food system, but also through health systems indicating what the effective nutrition actions are in primary health care. We also monitor the status of nutrition and foodborne disease and respond to food safety emergencies.

We have recently been dealing with the challenge of figuring out the connection between food systems and the new generation of pandemic disease threats in the context of COVID-19.

What does the World Food Safety Day 2021 theme ‘Safe food today for a healthy tomorrow’ aim to highlight?

World Food Safety Day was established three years ago by the United Nations (UN) and it is a responsibility that the WHO shares with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), our sister agency, to appeal for action and remind people that each one of us needs to address current and emerging food safety challenges.

The theme of this year is safe food today for a healthy tomorrow and this really stresses the importance of ensuring safe food now, particularly at a time when we have restrictions and challenges that also are valid for the food system. This is about raising awareness for the consumption and production of safe foods having immediate and long-term benefits for people, the planet, and the economy. It is also to remind people that when we improve food safety, we reduce hunger, malnutrition, and infant mortality, children miss fewer days at school, and adults have lower work absenteeism.

Safe food also benefits the economy by increasing productivity and reducing the strain on health care systems. World Food Safety Day on the 7th of June is basically a reminder that we have a collective responsibility to ensure safe, healthy, and nutritious food.

World Food Safety Day 2021

What are the WHO’s main calls to action regarding food safety?

Firstly, food safety is not the responsibility of a single actor. It is a collective responsibility. The goal is that governments ensure safe and nutritious food for all. In particular, they need to set up adequate food control systems throughout the value chain. It is also a call to the producers, agriculture, and food manufacturers to adopt good practices. It is a call for business operators that are responsible for the distribution of food to make sure that food is safe. But it is also a call for consumers who need to learn about safe and healthy food. It is basically a call for all these actors to work together for safe food and good health.

It is also about setting the ground rules for the safe production and distribution of food. It is about enforcing these rules, enabling those actors to implement the rules, and having the adequate resources and capacities to do that. But also it is about awareness. A lot of the food safety rules need to be applied at home, and we have some interesting information on how to guarantee food safety at home. It is everybody's responsibility.

Firstly, food safety is not the responsibility of a single actor. It is a collective responsibility.

How are food safety, nutrition, and food security linked?

Well, nutrition and food safety are really closely interlinked as they are two health outcomes from food systems. Food security needs to encompass both nutrition and food safety because we need to have foods, but that food needs to be of the right kind and of the right quality.

If we have unsafe food, that has an impact on disease and malnutrition and in particularly vulnerable individuals such as infants, young children, the elderly, and people that have immune deficiencies.

If we eat unsafe food, we do not have adequate nutrition. We use the slogan ‘if it is not safe, it is not food’, because only safe food will help meet dietary needs and ensure that everybody is able to live an active and healthy life.

We estimate that more than 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 people die every year from eating food that is contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, or chemicals. These are only the numbers we are able to measure so there are probably even more people affected in the world.

Foodborne diseases affect everyone around the globe, particularly infants and those in low-income countries. What can be done to reduce the devastating impacts of foodborne disease?

The WHO has been asked by the World Health Assembly to develop a global food safety strategy. This is done in collaboration with the FAO, the Organization of Animal Health, and member states. From this, we are saying that there are five things that need to be done.

First of all, strengthening national food controls. Secondly, identifying and responding to food safety challenges resulting from global changes and transformations in food systems. Third, increasing the use of food chain information, scientific evidence, and risk assessment in making risk management decisions. Fourth, strengthening stakeholder engagement and risk communication. And lastly, promoting food safety is an essential component in domestic and international food trade.

This is really about understanding the issue, having adequate data, and monitoring the issues. Adequate production systems must be set up which are then monitored with adequate food controls and there must be adequate communication about the challenges of food safety in all of society.

Foodborne Disease

Foodborne Disease. Image Credit: Microgen/Shutterstock.com

How does food safety impact the global economy and sustainable development?

We are saying that food safety is really connected with many of the sustainable development goals. Food safety clearly addresses sustainable development goal number two, which is zero hunger, and as we said before, if we do not have food safety then it is difficult to achieve adequate food security, good health, and wellbeing, which is sustainable development goal number three.

But the goals that are dealing with prosperity, for example, sustainable development goal eight - decent work and economic growth, are also linked to food safety. If we do not have safe food and people get sick that has an impact on workers' health, and also has an impact on economic exchanges. Unsafe foods are not something that is appealing and so this negatively affects international trade.

Food safety is also important for the achievement of the first sustainable goal, the one on global poverty. Having safe food is keeping people in that state. Sustainable development goal 12 on responsible consumption and production patterns also relates to food safety so there are many elements.

We are basically saying that if we have safe food, we have better use of the earth’s resources and we have a better impact on the achievement of the goals on health and food security.

Food systems are important drivers of the economy. If we could add up the income or the productivity of the different value chains, we would end up with a number that is equal to the third biggest economy in the world. Therefore, the whole world food system is almost like the whole economy of the United States or China. So it is a very important component of the global economy.

The increasing global population is affecting both food safety and security. How can food systems adapt and make these things accessible in a growing world?

There are different mechanisms. First of all, the demographic changes; by 2050 there will be about 10 billion people in the world, and the population increase will particularly take place in sub-Saharan Africa, and Central/Southern Asia.

Then there is the change in the demographic pyramid - we are going to have more elderly people. So we then have the challenge of producing a sufficient amount of food for all, and of course, of sufficient quality. That food, as we have said previously, has to be safe food. How can we scale up production without sacrificing the necessary protection for people?

Since we will have more vulnerable people, that food particularly needs to be controlled. Older people are more susceptible to foodborne hazards due to age-related weakened immune systems.

The distribution of that population is also going to change. So today, half of the world’s population live in cities or towns, but by 2050, we will have over 65% of the global population living in cities. Cities have a higher population density and they need to rely more and more on distribution systems. You do not have direct access to food, you have to buy it in a shop or a supermarket. So there are longer chains that need to be controlled and, therefore, urbanization poses increased challenges to food safety.

Furthermore, society is changing. Consumer expectations are changing, the behavior of consumers is changing. People are interested in different varieties of foods. They eat in the street, they eat out of home, but they also want to have products that are adequately guaranteed and with a known origin of the ingredients. All of this poses challenges. We need to produce more food, we need to produce better food, and we need to be more careful in the way food is produced and distributed.

Population Growth

Population Growth. Image Credit: Arthimedes/Shutterstock.com

Climate change and environmental destruction are also having a significant impact on food safety and security. How can these changes be fought to prevent disastrous effects on food, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable populations?

It is true that climate change is posing challenges. If we have higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events, they will have an impact on food systems. There are some studies that indicate that we would have low levels of agricultural production, even a different content of nutrients in the food product, particularly in plants. This is because plants/some crops will be affected by stress and drought.

There could also be the emergence of new pathogens that might require the use of new pesticides.

All these changes affect the interface between the environment, animal and human, and have a detrimental effect. Food safety will have increased challenges as a result of climate change so we need to make everybody aware of this effect because we need to be ready to take appropriate precautionary and mitigation measures. We need to invest more in surveillance monitoring, stronger infrastructure, awareness-raising, and so forth.

But, this actually works in two ways. On the one hand, climate change is going to affect food production. But on the other hand, it is food production that affects the climate. At the moment, intensive agriculture production systems are a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, the use of freshwater and the use of landmass. Intensive animal production is also having an impact on anti-microbial resistance .

Also, the plastic materials we use for packaging food have an impact on the environment. Our food system, at the moment, is responsible for some of the negative impacts on the environment, and we need to change that.

We need to prevent the negative effect of climate change and environmental impact, but also change food systems in a way that not only reduces the impact on the environment but actually becomes a solution to climate change. If we shifted our consumption patterns towards a greater proportion of plant foods, then agriculture could become what is called a carbon sink and hence help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Unless agriculture and the food system change their practices, it is not going to be possible to achieve the Paris climate goals.

Antimicrobial resistance is a continually growing global health concern. How is this problem affecting food safety and security, and what can be done to help prevent it?

The use of anti-microbials to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy farmed animals and crops contributes to the development and spread of anti-microbial resistance. Antibiotics are often used in the livestock industry as growth promoters. Also, the practices of farming animals in constrained spaces lead to the need for prophylactic use of antibiotics. What then happens is that these antibiotics are dispersed in the environment and they contaminate soil and water. This is not just the livestock. Antibiotics are also used in aquaculture.

In this age, the use of anti-microbials is going to increase. Between now and 2030, we will probably see a further doubling in the consumption of antibiotics.

So what can we do about it? The WHO has worked with other UN organizations to develop a global action plan on anti-microbial resistance untile 2050. The plan calls particularly for the improvement of regulations on the use of anti-microbial agents which at the moment is non-existent, is inadequate, and is not enforced. Farmers can buy anti-microbials over the counter and on the internet. Therefore, we need more guidance, we need more regulations, we need more technical implementation, and we need more capacity building.

How has food safety and hunger around the world been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and how does the world need to respond to this in its recovery?

First of all, we need to say that COVID-19 is not transmitted by food. But COVID-19 has had an impact on food production because food workers have been ill, and in some situations, the crops have simply not been collected. Last year, particularly when there were restrictions to the travel of laborers, there were fewer people to collect the crops.

The pandemic has also had an impact on the transport and distribution of food.

But perhaps the most important impact has been on livelihoods. Economies have gone down and there is a modeling exercise and calculation that states about 90 million additional people would have gone into food insecurity. This is the estimate from the State of Food Security and Nutrition Report (SOFI), jointly published by FAO, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO. There is also going to be a new report published next month that is probably going to update this estimate.

There has been an impact on people's capacity to access food, particularly healthy food. Often fresh food has been a problem because it was not available. Convenience food has become more accessible during the lockdown and people have changed their food habits, consuming more processed food.

COVID-19 has really highlighted the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in food production and distribution systems. We are saying that the recovery should be an opportunity to build back better. The WHO has issued a manifesto for a green and healthy recovery, and one of the areas is focused on food systems and sustainable food systems.

This year, we are going to see the UN Food Systems Summit in September convened by the UN Secretary-General in which these issues will be discussed. We are optimistic about important changes that we can implement. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely given everybody a big signal that we need to do things differently. We cannot do business as usual moving forward.

Food Shortage

Food Shortage. Image Credit: Xanya69/Shutterstock.com

COVID-19 has really highlighted the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in food production and distribution systems.

Can people who do have access to food adapt their diets to alleviate and reduce the effects of climate change and improve food accessibility for others?

I think it is important that we all have access to, and consume healthy diets from foods that are sustainably produced. There are different elements, there is the element of what we eat, and there is an element of how that food is produced.

Regarding what we eat, we know that the production of certain foods has a greater demand on the environment, whether it is the production of greenhouse gases or whether it is the use of land and water. Usually, plant food has a lower environmental footprint so really shifting towards a more plant-based diet should be the aim of our work.

At the moment, the way that animal-sourced food is produced is not sustainable. It would be impossible for the whole world to consume the diet that we consume in the Western world. The planet would not be sufficient. So, we need to shift this consumption. Particularly because in high-income countries, particularly North America and Europe, we have a very high consumption of animal-sourced food. We would need to bring down that consumption, while other parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, that have a very low level of animal-sourced food, could consume more. This would perhaps allow increased production and consumption in those parts of the world whilst staying within the limits of enviornmental sustainability.

Having said this, there is also more to do in terms of production systems. Even animal production can be made more sustainable. Intensive production systems, which are using a lot of energy and use anti-microbials, for example, are less sustainable and will have a greater impact than perhaps more locally produced, small farm animals. That is an interesting and important area for consideration.

There is even scope for having greater access to marine foods. That is perhaps the source of food which could be increased teh most. But it does not have to be fish, it could be algae for example. We also need to look at new food and new sources of food. Insects have been mentioned many times. Insects would provide the nutrients we need, but without that important environmental impact that we have at the moment.

How can governments, producers, and consumers work together to improve food safety for all?

First of all, I think we need to have clarity of what the aims are. We all need to be on the same page in terms of diets that are healthy, sustainable, and produced with safe food, and then everybody needs to play a role.

Governments, I think, have a primary role because they are not only the ones who set the rules of the game, but they are also the ones who are able to leverage the resources. Public investments are important. Public investment in the forms of, for example, subsidies, is a major economic driver. But also in terms of infrastructure development and research and development. Public sector can also drive consumption as it purchases large amounts of food for public canteens. I think the public sector has a very important role in the evolution of food systems.

Producers, of course, would need to change their practices and really shift towards the consumption of food that is supportive of a healthy diet. There are of course important economic issues. At the moment, three billion people in the world, which is almost half of the people in the world, are not able to afford a healthy diet. This is because of the availability, the distribution, and the cost of a healthy diet. We need to have a major shift.

What do you think the future of food safety is looking to be and what key factors are going to influence this?

We need to consider that there are going to be continuous food safety challenges and emerging diseases. We have seen that about 75% of the infectious diseases in the last 20 years have come from animals, and many of them come from animals that are used for food. Just look back: mad cow disease, spongiform encephalopathy, or COVID-19 itself . We need to somehow be vigilant about wild animals getting closer to humans as a result of human action on the environment and about the risk of infecting farmed animals.

But there are maybe new challenges that come from the development of novel foods and we need to be able to understand whether those novel sources of food are safe. In Europe we are going to have a directive regulating the safety of food coming from insects. That is a very important development.

We need to be ready to evaluate and do a proper risk assessment of new technologies, for example, meat replacement and cultured meat.  

There are also the other challenges that we have mentioned previously. The challenges of an evolving world, the challenges of climate and environmental stresses, the challenges of an increased and shifting population. I think we have multiple challenges ahead of us so we need to make sure that food safety systems are equipped to identify, evaluate, and respond to existing and emerging issues.

Where can readers find more information?

•Joint malnutrition estimates (https://www.who.int/nutgrowthdb/estimates/en/)

•SOFI (https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/state-of-food-security-and-nutrition-in-the-world-2020)

•GLOPAN report (https://www.glopan.org/foresight2/)

•Essential Nutrition Actions (https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241515856)

•Lancet papers on nutrition and COVID (https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(20)31647-0/fulltext)

•Lancet series double burden of malnutrition (https://www.thelancet.com/series/double-burden-malnutrition)

•Malnutrition and COVID-19: FAO fact sheet (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety)

•The potential impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on maternal and child undernutrition in low and middle-income countries (paper under review) https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-123716/v1

About Francesco Branca

Francesco Branca is the Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety in the World Health Organization, Geneva (since February 2020).Francesco Branca

From 2008 to 2019, he was the Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. During this period, WHO has developed a WHO Nutrition strategy, established a new nutrition guideline development process, and has developed a Comprehensive Implementation Plan on Maternal, Infant, and Young Child Nutrition with six global targets. He has been leading the preparation of the 2nd International Conference on Nutrition and the Secretariat of the Decade of Action on Nutrition. Before that, in 2005-2008, Dr. Branca was the Regional Advisor for Nutrition at the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

Between 1988 and 2005, he has been a Senior Scientist at the Italian Food and Nutrition Research Institute where he was leading studies on the effects of food and nutrients on human health at the different stages of the life cycle and on the impact of public health nutrition programmes. He has been President of the Federation of the European Nutrition Societies in 2003-2007.

In 1985-1986, Dr. Branca has been a medical staff of a Primary Health Care project in the South of Somalia ran by the Italian NGO, CISP.

Dr. Branca graduated in Medicine and Surgery and specialized in Diabetology and Metabolic Diseases at the Universita' Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Roma and obtained an MSc and then a Ph.D. in Nutrition at Aberdeen University.

Emily Henderson

Written by

Emily Henderson

During her time at AZoNetwork, Emily has interviewed over 150 leading experts in all areas of science and healthcare including the World Health Organization and the United Nations. She loves being at the forefront of exciting new research and sharing science stories with thought leaders all over the world.

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