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UN: Budapest Conference Seeks How To Improve Food Safety

Delegates from some 50 European and Central Asian countries are meeting in Budapest this week to discuss how to improve the quality of food safety in their regions. They're concerned by rising levels of food-related diseases and calling for a global rapid-alert system to contain food-borne disease outbreaks.

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Delegates from some 50 European and Central Asian countries arrived in Budapest this week for the first pan-European conference on food safety.

It's being organized by two UN agencies -- the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) -- and brings together government, industry, and consumer experts from the European Union, Central and Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

The conference comes on the heels of several health scares -- most notably BSE, or "mad-cow disease" -- that have shaken public confidence in the European food industry. While the BSE scare was felt most keenly in Western Europe, Gregory Hartl says there's concern across the whole region about the growth of food-borne diseases.

Hartl is the WHO's communications adviser for food safety. He spoke to RFE/RL during a break in the conference.

"On the whole you could say that all food-borne diseases are probably on the rise. There are, however, differences country to country, [for instance,] salmonella might be a worse problem in one country while campylobacter or listeriosis is a worse problem in another country. Beyond that, the means to know accurately how many cases of disease there have been are better developed in some countries than in others."

A conference paper on food contamination illustrates the different problems across the region.

When it comes to infections from food-borne diseases, the Central Asian republics report the highest incidences of hydatidosis, a parasitic infection. Another parasitic disease, trichinellosis, is most common among the non-Muslim populations in the Balkan region, usually due to the consumption of products from infested boar and pigs slaughtered and processed at home.

The report says botulism crops up in Eastern Europe, often thanks to poorly prepared home-canned meats and vegetables or home-smoked fish and meat.

In general, harmful bacteria are most likely to be lurking in eggs, foods containing eggs, and meat. Mostly, it's cooking at home that's to blame, rather than outside catering services.

In Central and Eastern Europe, food contamination is largely due to industrial contamination of air, soil, and water. Mining and smelting, the agricultural industry, and hazardous waste disposal all produce their fair share of pollutants, usually in so-called "hot spots" rather than across a whole country.

One of these "hot spots" is the area around the Aral Sea, where the irrigation of cotton and heavy use of insecticides have had harmful effects on the health of the local population. High levels of DDT, a dangerous insecticide, are found in this region, which includes parts of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

The report cites a pilot study carried out in the Karakalpak autonomous region of Uzbekistan that suggests perinatal (the period surrounding childbirth, especially the five months before and one month after birth) exposure to insecticides is linked to high rates of kidney and liver disease, allergies, cancer, and tuberculosis.

The Budapest delegates will come up with recommendations on how to improve food safety "from farm to fork" and harmonize safety controls. These will go forward to a further conference in May that will be able to turn proposals into policy.

Delegates have already called for a global rapid-alert system to prevent the spread of food disease outbreaks. The EU recently approved its own rapid-alert system, whereby member governments must inform the European Commission of any food safety risks.

But in many of the countries in the region, simply getting enough to eat is a struggle. Isn't food safety a bit of a luxury in these areas? Hartl responds with an emphatic "no."

"Everyone wants safe food. And when you're trying to ensure adequate amounts of food, there's no better time than when putting in place new forms of food production to ensure from the outset that food is safe. We know that there are, unfortunately, at least 800 million people in the world who don't have enough food. And that is very regretful, and the UN and many other organizations are doing as much as possible to redress that problem. But at the same time, we should ensure that when better production methods are put in place, or when more food is produced, that that food is of the requisite quality."

Food safety, Hartl says, is a necessity, not a luxury.