Food Fears Globalize

Rescue workers try to cross a washed out road in Tecpan, Guatemala, 62 miles west of Guatemala City, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005. Rescue workers pulled dozens of bodies from a massive mudslide and from a swollen river, following five days of pounding rains in Central America and Mexico.
AP Photo/Mario Cruz
The world needs new food safety rules because increased global food trade means health problems can spread rapidly from country to country, the head of the U.N. health agency said Monday.

"The globalization of the world's food supply means the globalization of public health concerns," Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization, told an international food standards commission.

"It is more and more difficult to solve food safety problems in one country without international collaboration," Brundtland told the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint body of WHO and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, which began a weeklong meeting here Monday.

The 165-nation commission, which meets every two years, is considering guidelines on bacteria control, pesticide levels in food, and biotech safety.

Consumer food safety fears, particularly in Europe, have been fueled by a series of crises over the past decade.

Concerns over the safety of meat have grown because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which affects cattle. The disease, which has not been found in the United States, is believed to have been caused by contaminated feed prepared from animal carcasses.

A human form of the lethal brain disease, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has claimed victims in Britain and other European countries.

There have also been worries over cancer-causing dioxins and salmonella contamination in eggs and dairy products.

But Brundtland said high-profile outbreaks were only part of the problem. Around one-third of the population of industrialized countries suffer from a food-borne disease every year, she said.

Of course, food safety is not just a concern for rich countries. "Around two million children die every year from diarrhea in developing countries because of bad food and water," she said.

Few developing countries have food safety systems, she said. But more of them were trading with industrialized nations, so it is in their interest to adopt safety measures to protect both their own population and the populations of their trading partners.

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