Food safety

First formal meeting of the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG), 26-28 November 2007

Foodborne Diseases are a daily concern – for everyone, everywhere

Throughout the entire farm-to-fork continuum there is the risk of food contamination. As recently as November 2007, more than 400 people in Angola have been affected by a foodborne disease outbreak leading to neurological problems. This was not the result of under-cooked chicken or eggs, often associated with foodborne diseases, but a result of contamination of table salt, a basic condiment, with bromide.

There are many agents that threaten the safety of our food. Pathogens, parasites, chemical contaminants and biotoxins can all enter our food-chain leading to acute and chronic health problems or even death. Estimating the global burden of contaminated food arising from these causes is a challenging task, but crucially needed to provide scientific evidence to policy-makers and stakeholders. Without such information, the impact of food safety interventions will continue to be uncertain and the formulation of new food standards remains without scientific basis.

To tackle this complex issue and provide the scientific evidence, the World Health Organization has established a new expert group, the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG). This group of eminent scientists met for the first time from 26 to 28 November 2007 in Geneva to formally commence its burden of disease work.

Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) – designing the work plan

Dr David Heymann, Assistant Director-General, WHO
Opening of the first FERG Meeting by David Heymann, WHO Assistant Director-General

FERG comprises over 30 outstanding international experts who advise WHO on matters of foodborne disease epidemiology. Each FERG member was formally nominated by the WHO Director-General following an open and widely distributed call for advisers.

On the opening day of the first FERG Meeting, the group appointed its chair, Prof. Dr Arie Havelaar of the RIVM, the Netherlands. All members were briefed on the purpose and procedures of the Initiative. During the following days, the group developed detailed research plans to estimate the burden of bacterial, viral, parasitic and chemical foodborne diseases. These action plans are now being implemented by the WHO Secretariat, and the research activities are to be reviewed by the FERG in November 2008.

FERG 1 – a forum for bi-directional information sharing

The FERG at work
FERG Members and Stakeholders.

Foodborne disease prevention and control requires joint action. Consumer groups, governments, research platforms and the food industry need to be involved – each playing a different, but equally important role. To secure commitment and close collaboration, WHO invited umbrella organizations of such stakeholder groups to attend the opening day of the meeting where participants were briefed on the purposes, procedures and objectives of FERG. In a subsequent feedback session, stakeholders were given the floor to provide FERG with their comments, ideas and suggestions. "As governments and industries work together to tackle diarrhoeal diseases and to achieve other Millennium Development Goals, consumer groups have also stepped up to the challenge to contribute research and information [.]", said Ms Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). All stakeholders present at the meeting explicitly welcomed WHO's effort to estimate the foodborne disease burden, which reflects their own interests and goals. Different areas of cooperation were highlighted such as sharing of data or expertise, and conducting peer review and risk benefit analyses'.

The discussions of FERG 1 have confirmed the importance of exchange and partnership with stakeholders. A much larger and comprehensive stakeholder event will therefore be organised for the second FERG meeting scheduled for November 2008.

FERG 1 – comprising several generations of top scientists

Not only internationally established scientists advised and presented at FERG 1 but also a group of exceptionally talented under-graduate students in statistics from the St Olaf's College in Minnesota. Under the supervision of Prof Dr Julie Legler and in close collaboration with WHO, the young scientists analysed vital registration data to estimate potentially foodborne mortality. "These students have really done an impressive job. It is one of our goals to include brilliant young scientists like these in our Initiative to ensure fresh ideas are brought to the table and to foster scientific public health leadership", said Dr Claudia Stein, head of the WHO Initiative to estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases. Having returned home, the students will take their statistical work further and act on the feedback received from the FERG members.

Students from the St Olaf's College with FERG and the WHO Secretariat

For more information on the first FERG meeting, please contact: