As the US steps up its activities to tackle bioterrorism, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced this week new guidelines compiled by experts from national agencies to help governments minimise potential terrorist acts against food supplies.
According to WHO, foodborne agents may be responsible for up to 1.5 million deaths from diarrhoea-related conditions alone worldwide each year. In industrialised countries, such as the USA, one person in three may suffer from a foodborne disease annually.
WHO stressed that while only a few cases of intentional contamination of food have been proven, the risk of possible terrorist threats to food should be given serious consideration by public health authorities and the food industry.
The document examines means of establishing basic prevention, surveillance and response capacities. Because both unintentionally and deliberately caused outbreaks of foodborne disease may be managed by many of the same mechanisms, the WHO recommendations concentrate on working with national governments on integrating terrorism prevention and response measures into existing national food safety and disease surveillance programmes.
The role of the food industry in the preventive measures is pivotal and from the outset WHO encourages industry involvement. According to the organisation, existing food safety management programmes could be enhanced while establishing appropriate security measures to protect food production and distribution systems. As such, the WHO document provides suggestions for specific measures for consideration by the food industry.
In addition the guidelines look at strengthening existing communicable disease control systems to ensure that surveillance systems are sufficiently sensitive to meet the threat of any food safety emergency. WHO emphasises that the establishment and strengthening of such systems will have a double benefit - not only will they help address the threat of food terrorism and other emergencies, they will also increase governments' capacity to reduce the increasing burden of foodborne illness.
The need to strengthen existing emergency alert and response systems by improving links with all relevant agencies and with the food industry is given particular consideration by WHO. Many developed and most developing countries are not yet adequately prepared to deal with a large-scale food safety emergency, consequently, stresses WHO, all countries should undertake preparedness and response planning to be able to cope with food safety emergencies regardless of their cause.