In honor of World Food Safety Day in June 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) held a series of online discussions to share knowledge and spark dialogue about the most pressing food safety issues of our time. Over a four-day period, the WHO brought together a wide array of stakeholders, scientists, and other experts to provide a far-reaching update in food safety news, in keeping with this year’s theme: “food standards save lives.” 

Topics of this year’s discussions included:  

  • The latest updates to the WHO’s Global Strategy on Food Safety 
  • A new publication on genome sequencing 
  • The changing global food safety standards, international emergency response strategies, food fortification, and new techniques for estimating the burden of foodborne illnesses 

While the multi-day program covered many pressing topics, there were some clear themes and trends. Here are the three biggest takeaways from this year’s event: 

1. Chemical exposure in food could pose a bigger public health risk than we know 

The summer of 2023 has been replete with food safety news headlines about chemicals in food, including the presence of PFAS (or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water, and the discovery of health risks from aspartame. The WHO’s food safety talks were no different, with a discussion by Dr. Lea Sletting Jakobsen, a senior researcher at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. 

In her presentation, she explored data gaps in the impact that food-associated diseases have on public health. She paid special attention to aflatoxins, a human carcinogen known to cause liver cancer, and dioxins, an industrial byproduct that primarily enters people through food sources. She highlighted how data gaps prevent understanding of how these chemicals can impact health over time (and at what concentrations), what types of risks they pose, and efforts to trace food-associated diseases. Dr. Jakobsen closed her presentation by highlighting how WHO’s Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) is conducting additional research to fill these data gaps and create a framework that streamlines future data collection and analysis. 

2. Accurate foodborne illness estimates are needed to spur political change 

Throughout the weekend, speakers reaffirmed that foodborne illnesses and diseases are preventable and require coordinated international efforts to prevent their spread and mitigate impact. In spite of this, food safety receives relatively little attention across the globe, especially in developing and emerging countries. Creating reliable data about the prevalence of foodborne illnesses, what causes them, and the burdens they create — particularly economically and to healthcare systems — will play a critical role in raising awareness about foodborne illnesses to the public, as well as driving legislative and regulatory action. 

In one Q&A presentation, Dr. Rob Lake, an expert in food safety risk assessment with more than 35 years of experience, gave an update on WHO’s 2020 mandate to monitor the impact of foodborne illnesses on member states and report their findings. The new report will be completed and made available in 2025, laying the groundwork for a more robust and integrated data collection and monitoring effort moving forward. 

3. Whole genome sequencing is becoming a leading tool in combating foodborne disease 

In a relatively short time, whole genome sequencing (WGS) has already revolutionized the way researchers can track and identify foodborne illnesses. The technology allows users to compare genetic makeup of different strains of bacteria to determine how they’re related, identifying genetic markers that serve as “fingerprints” to help trace the source of an outbreak. 

As WGS technology proliferates and becomes more cost effective, it will enable more detailed surveillance of foodborne illness outbreaks and faster responses to protect public health. It may even play a larger role in food safety crisis responses in developing countries and enable them to build food safety and public health systems more quickly and affordably. 

Food safety is evolving rapidly in the new decade. The WHO’s talks provided much-needed insight into the current landscape, as well as where the industry is moving. Want to stay up to date on the latest food safety news? Sign up for the AIB International newsletter here.

Back to Blog