Food safety

Second formal meeting of the Foodborne Disease Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) in Geneva, 17-21 November 2008, including a Foodborne Disease Stakeholder Event

Last reviewed/updated
14 May 2009

Foodborne diseases - a global issue

Recent events surrounding melamine contamination in food have demonstrated - yet again - that food safety touches all our lives. Foodborne diseases threaten international public health security and economic development. As trade, travel and migration increase, so does the spread of dangerous contaminants and pathogens in food across borders. Diarrhoeal diseases alone - a considerable proportion of which is foodborne - kill 2.16 million children globally every year. However, the full burden of foodborne diseases is clearly larger and results from a variety of conditions arising from both microbiological and chemical contamination.

The full extent of the burden and cost of unsafe food, however, is currently unknown. In order to fill the current data vacuum, the WHO launched the Initiative to Estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases. The Initiative considers all major causes of foodborne diseases, including microbiological, parasitic and chemical origin.

Dr Arie Havelaar
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Dr Arie Havelaar, Chair of the FERG

FERG 2 - assessing the work and charting new ways forward

In 2007, the WHO Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG), comprising the world's leading experts in the area of food safety, was established to act as technical advisory body to the Initiative. Since the FERG's first meeting in November 2007, major pieces of review, research and modelling work have been commissioned (for full information on FERG 1, click here).

The second formal meeting of the FERG took place in Geneva from 17 to 21 November 2008 with the main purposes of (a) providing the opportunity for members to meet and discuss the progress made over the last 12 months and (b) reviewing and revising the work commissioned according to the FERG Task Forces' workplans. Interim results on the following causes of foodborne diseases were presented and appraised:

  • Chemicals/toxins: cassava cyanide, aflatoxin, dioxins, and peanut allergens
  • Parasites: intestinal protozoa, fasciola, taenia solium, and cystic echinococcosis
  • Enteric pathogens: global burden of diarrhoeal diseases

As in 2007, the FERG meeting was again an occasion for exceptionally talented students to participate and contribute to the expert discussions. Three 'young stars in science' from the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St Kitts and Nevis, presented the findings of their review work on alveolar echinococcosis caused by tapeworms.

Krista Keller, Melissa Magnotta and Natalie Raglan
Photo - M. Rokni
Krista Keller, Melissa Magnotta and Natalie Raglan from the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, Saint Kitts and Nevis presenting at FERG 2
Dr Claudia Stein
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Dr Claudia Stein, lead of the WHO Initiative to Estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases

Moreover, the externally conducted Year 1 Evaluation of the Initiative was presented to the FERG with very positive overall results. Out of 26 of respondents, 100 % commented favourably on the Initiative's strategy development, 96 % on the Initiative's inputs, 92 % on the process being used by the Initiative, and 100 % on the outputs to date. A formal evaluation report will be made available soon on the Initiative's homepage.

Furthermore, the WHO Secretariat presented the outline of the Initiative's new 'Country Studies' Task Force to the FERG. This Task Force will take up its work in 2009 to develop tools and protocols to assist countries in conducting burden of foodborne disease studies at national level.

Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
FERG Members, Resource Advisers, Observers and the WHO Secretariat at FERG 2

Stakeholder meeting

In connection with the second meeting of the FERG, WHO convened a stakeholder event where multi-sectoral partners from WHO Member States, multilateral agencies, scientific networks, the relevant industries (food and agricultural), consumer groups, and the scientific and public media gathered. The specific aims of the stakeholder meeting were to:

  • Provide an opportunity for all relevant sectors, especially of developing countries, to actively engage with the research conducted through the Initiative;
  • Expand the current list of partners and open new channels for multi-sectoral technical cooperation, networking and fundraising;
  • Gain global recognition of the impact of foodborne illness and solicit international support for the estimation of foodborne disease burden.
Nancy Donley
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Nancy Donley, president of the US non-profit group STOP

Testimony on foodborne diseases

At the beginning of the Stakeholder Event, Nancy Donley, president of the US non-profit group STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), gave a very powerful and emotive speech on the effects offoodborne diseases. Her 6-year-old son Alex died in 1993 from meat contaminated with E. coli. Ms Donley tol participants that "It's crucial to keep foodborne disease prevention as a top priority in the world. We applaud the World Health Organization’s efforts on gathering foodborne disease mortality and morbidity data in order to understand its burden to society and to prioritize efforts in preventing foodborne disease. Many governments allocate their country’s resources based on perceived risk to its people. Therefore, knowing and understanding the scope and toll of foodborne disease is imperative in order to ensure that the necessary governmental resources to prevent foodborne illness are made available."

Briefing of the Stakeholder Community on the WHO Initiative to Estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases

WHO Assistant Director-General Dr David Heymann gave an overview presentation on the rationale of estimating the global burden of foodborne diseases in the context of global public health security. He emphasized that both rich and poor countries were vulnerable to foodborne diseases. "Foodborne diseases occur on every continent and in every country. We never know where these events will happen",. However, the heaviest share of the human burden, he continued, occurred in poor countries and jeopardized international development efforts, including the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (particularly those relating to poverty and child mortality).

David Heymann
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Dr David Heymann, WHO Assistant Director-General

Dr Heymann's speech was followed by a presentation by the WHO Director Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, Dr Jørgen Schlundt. "There are some indications that the foodborne disease burden is increasing. But there is not very good data, it is difficult to say exactly what is happening", said Schlundt before providing more detailed information on:

  • the Initiative's recent history and achievements
  • the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG)
  • the Initiative's Strategic Framework, including budget
  • the Initiative's Partnerships

Stakeholder working groups on communications, advocacy and policy

The Stakeholder Meeting was not only an opportunity to raise global awareness of the WHO Initiative. Short workshops covering several themes (communication, advocacy and policy) were convened requesting participants to suggest:

  • how to improve the reporting of data;
  • how to ensure that burden of disease data meet the needs of policy makers and other end-users; and
  • how to make suggestions for improvement of collaboration under the various themes.

Comments, ideas and suggestions made by the stakeholders were discussed by the FERG and WHO Secretariat and documented in the meeting report.

This year's stakeholder event has again shown the importance of exchange and collaboration with the stakeholder community. This forum, which is a unique opportunity to engage in this area of WHO's work for all those striving to make food safer, will be held next year again.

Jørgen Schlundt
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Dr Jørgen Schlundt, WHO Director, Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Photo - Oliver O'Hanlon
Fruitful exchanges during the Stakeholder Communication/Advocacy Working Group and the Stakeholder Policy Working Group