Food Safety


    The Food Safety Programme supports Member States to develop, implement, monitor and evaluate policies, strategies and programmes to address all food safety and nutrition problems, towards attaining the highest possible level of food safety and optimal nutrition.

    WHO’s first ever global estimates of foodborne diseases find children under 5 account for almost one third of deaths

    First ever estimates of the global burden of foodborne diseases show almost 1 in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food and 420 000 die as a result
    - Children under 5 years of age are at particularly high risk, with 125 000 children dying from foodborne diseases every year
    - WHO African and South-East Asia Regions have the highest burden of foodborne diseases

    News release

    3 DECEMBER 2015 | GENEVA - Almost one third (30%) of all deaths from foodborne diseases are in children under the age of 5 years, despite the fact that they make up only 9% of the global population. This is among the findings of WHO's "Estimates of the global burden of foodborne diseases" – the most comprehensive report to date on the impact of contaminated food on health and well-being.

    The report, which estimates the burden of foodborne diseases caused by 31 agents – bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals – states that each year as many as 600 million, or almost 1 in 10 people in the world, fall ill after consuming contaminated food. Of these, 420 000 people die, including 125 000 children under the age of 5 years.

    “Until now, estimates of foodborne diseases were vague and imprecise. This concealed the true human costs of contaminated food. This report sets the record straight,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “Knowing which foodborne pathogens are causing the biggest problems in which parts of the world can generate targeted action by the public, governments, and the food industry.”

    While the burden of foodborne diseases is a public health concern globally, the WHO African and South-East Asia Regions have the highest incidence and highest death rates, including among children under the age of 5 years.

    “These estimates are the result of a decade of work, including input from more than 100 experts from around the world. They are conservative, and more needs to be done to improve the availability of data on the burden of foodborne diseases. But based on what we know now, it is apparent that the global burden of foodborne diseases is considerable, affecting people all over the world – particularly children under 5 years of age and people in low-income areas,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses.

    Diarrhoeal diseases are responsible for more than half of the global burden of foodborne diseases, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230 000 deaths every year. Children are at particular risk of foodborne diarrhoeal diseases, with 220 million falling ill and 96 000 dying every year. Diarrhoea is often caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, eggs, fresh produce and dairy products contaminated by norovirus, Campylobacter, non-typhoidal Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli.

    Other major contributors to the global burden of foodborne diseases are typhoid fever, hepatitis A, Taenia solium (a tapeworm), and aflatoxin (produced by mould on grain that is stored inappropriately).

    Certain diseases, such as those caused by non-typhoidal Salmonella, are a public health concern across all regions of the world, in high- and low-income countries alike. Other diseases, such as typhoid fever, foodborne cholera, and those caused by pathogenic E. coli, are much more common to low-income countries, while Campylobacter is an important pathogen in high-income countries.

    The risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation.

    Foodborne diseases can cause short-term symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea (commonly referred to as food poisoning), but can also cause longer-term illnesses, such as cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain and neural disorders. These diseases may be more serious in children, pregnant women, and those who are older or have a weakened immune system. Children who survive some of the more serious foodborne diseases may suffer from delayed physical and mental development, impacting their quality of life permanently.

    Food safety is a shared responsibility, says WHO. The report’s findings underscore the global threat posed by foodborne diseases and reinforce the need for governments, the food industry and individuals to do more to make food safe and prevent foodborne diseases. There remains a significant need for education and training on the prevention of foodborne diseases among food producers, suppliers, handlers and the general public. WHO is working closely with national governments to help set and implement food safety strategies and policies that will in turn have a positive impact on the safety of food in the global marketplace.

    Unsafe food: a major health threat in the African Region


    Consuming unsafe foods pose a significant public health threat in the African Region. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with underlying illnesses are particularly vulnerable.

    Food and water containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances are responsible for more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. Meats, seafood, cooked rice, cooked pasta, milk, cheese and eggs are common types of food that can become unsafe very fast.

    On the 7th of April 2015, the World Health Organization will dedicate World Health Day to the issue of food safety with theme of “From farm to plate, make food safe”. This provides an opportunity to educate consumers and alert governments, manufacturers and retailers about the importance of food safety and the part actors in the food chain, from farm to plate, can play in ensuring that food is safe to eat.

    The most common symptoms of foodborne illnesses include stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. Symptoms may occur very quickly after eating the food, or may take days or even weeks to appear. For most foodborne illnesses, symptoms occur 24-72 hours after the food has been eaten.

    The smell, taste and appearance of food and water are not good indicators for determining whether they will make you sick. Just because something looks safe to eat does not mean that it is. It takes over 2.5 billion bacteria or germs to make 250 ml of water look cloudy, but in some cases it only takes 15-20 bacteria to make one sick. Similarly, the accumulation of invisible germs on one’s hands is a common source of transmission that is often overlooked.

    This highlights the urgent need to wash one’s hands before and after handling food and after going to the toilet. If a food handler is infected with a virus and continues to prepare food, this virus may be passed on to the consumer via the food.

    Unfortunately though, many people do not wash their hands properly. When washing hands, pay special attention to finger tips, fingernails, thumbs, wrists and in between fingers. While washing with soap and water is ideal, many people who do not have access to soap or detergent can use coal ash as a substitute.

    Also, it is important to not handle or prepare food if you are experiencing symptoms of a foodborne disease. If this cannot be avoided, wash your hands with soap and water first and frequently during food preparation. Keeping your hands clean is the first in the five keys to safer food developed by WHO to highlight the most important ways to make food safe.

    New food handling practices have evolved as a result of our increasingly globalized world. A longer food chain, changes in technology, and antimicrobial resistance all increase the risk of foods becoming contaminated.

    Although, antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, are essential to treat infections caused by bacteria, their overuse and misuse has been linked to the emergence and spread of resistant bacteria, rendering the treatment of infectious diseases ineffective. As a result, antimicrobial resistance is increasingly becoming a bigger threat to the effectiveness of modern medicine.

    Unsafe food has put major strains on health systems and has hurt national economies, development and international trade in the African Region. Much work has been done by WHO in the past to prevent these consequences from happening.

    WHO will continue to support governments to make food safety a higher public health priority to address these challenges through improving prevention, detection and response to health threats associated with unsafe food.


    For more information, please contact:

    Technical contact:
    Dr Mohamed Sheriff; Tel: +472 413 9943; Email:

    Media contacts:
    Dr Cory Couillard; Tel: + 472 413 9995; Email:
    Mr Collins Boakye-Agyemang; Tel: + 472 413 9420; Email:

    Food Safety and High Risk Groups
    Hand Washing and Food Safety
    The informal food trade
    Food Safety in Emergencies
    Genetically Modified Foods (GMF)
    Cholera and food safety
    Developing National Food Safety Policies and Legislation

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