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In commemoration of World Health Day 2015 
How safe is your food? From farm to plate make food safe
Presented by the WHO and UN FAO - Tuesday, 7 April 2015  Time: 1:15 – 2:30 p.m. 
Conference Room 12, United Nations 

Discussing Food Safety on the Birthday of the WHO

International Health Day - WHO's Birthday at the United Nations - April 7, 2015

Summary by
Julie MARDIN, The Light Millennium
NGO Representative at the United Nations Department of Public Information

Last Tuesday (April 7) the WHO and FAO liaisons to the UN presented a panel on Food Safety to commemorate the birthday of the World Health Organization. The panel titled 'How Safe is your food?: From farm to plate make food safe' featured four expert panelists who explored what it takes to attain a safe food system that combats the risks of microbes, viruses, parasites and chemicals. An estimated 2 million people die annually from food and water borne illnesses.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, Executive Director of the WHO office in New York, who gave a brief overview, citing the highly industrialized and globalized food system that presents multiple opportunities for food contamination. He then introduced the first speaker, H.E. Ambassador Nicholas Emiliou, Permanent Representative to the UN from Cyprus and Vice President of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, who gave a comprehensive introduction to the topic, with the main concerns of sanitization, the integrity of distribution systems, how these topics relate to nutrition security, the importance again on the focus on women, and the issue of pesticide residues.

Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, Executive Director, WHO Office in New York Dr. Simin Nikbin Meydani, Director, Human Nutrition Research at Tufts University

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, Executive Director of the WHO office in New York. (Center) H.E. Mr.Karel J.G. van Oosterom (right) Sharon Brennen-Haylock, Director, FAO Liaison Office to the UN.

Dr. Simin Nikbin Meydani, Director, Human Nutrition Research at Tufts University (right) H.E. Mr. Nicholas Emiliou, Ambassador, Permanent Rep. of Cyprus to the UN.

H.E. Karel J.G. van Oosterom, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of Netherlands to the United Nations, gave an outline of his country's food system, and how they have come to be the second largest exporter of food (agricultural products including seeds, flowers...), despite their smaller geographic size (16,000 square miles) in comparison to such giants as the United States, which is the #1 exporter, or China and Russia.

They have done this by focusing on high tech, not low tech, agriculture. As an example he stated that greenhouses are so much more fertile than outdoor land.

He outlined a list of his country's aims, among which were: to maximize production, but also to ensure quality, to guard against contamination, as well as side effects. To protect the incredibly dense 17 million Dutch population they have created a very integrated regulatory system that is inclusive of a broad range of sectors, from farmers, consumer groups, NGOs, and independent inspection organizations. They have also developed rapid response mechanisms if and when there are signs of an outbreak.

How will a country with such a highly evolved food and food safety system such as Holland protect itself from trade partners with looser regulations?

H.E. Karel J.G. van Oosterom, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN - World Health Day, April 7, 2015
H.E. Karel J.G. van Oosterom, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations - during his statement at the World Health Day at the UN.

They also adhere to some different standards in food production, which have come to the fore in the free trade negotiations between Europe and the US. There are some definite disagreements with some of the United States' methods, such as the use of chlorine in poultry, hormones in livestock production, as well as the use of GMOs. How a country with such a highly evolved food and food safety system such as Holland will protect itself from trade partners with looser regulations remained an open question.

Vitamin supplementation or having adequate fruits and vegetables is a key factor
in the fight against food and water borne diseases

Next Dr. Simin Nikbin Meydani, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, outlined the many changes in current times in food production, distribution, new bacteria formation, food borne pathogens, and anti-microbial resistance. While exploring all of these areas she took the time to explain the importance of the immune system, and the segments of society most at risk: children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the immune-suppressed. These points are all the more important because soon there will be more seniors in the world population than youths.

Listeria slide of Dr. Simin Meydani Nutrition slide of Dr. Simin Meydani
Slides from Dr. Simin Nikbin Meydani's presentation

The problem can be looked at as access to food, but also as one of proper nutrition. You can reduce contamination, but if the host is malnourished, a small amount of contamination will still have disastrous effects. To make her point she used the example of Listeria, the third leading cause of death in food borne illness. And yet, with improved vitamin supplementation the fatality decreases. Vitamin A and zinc help resist diarrheal diseases. Salmonella causes 100,000 deaths a year. Research that she conducted on mice found that there was much greater resistance to the disease when white button mushroom powder was added to their diet.

Stressing the importance of the immune system, she concluded that vitamin supplementation or having adequate fruits and vegetables was a key factor in the fight against food and water borne diseases.


Could you talk about access to healthy food?

A question about food access among the urban poor of the developed world, the high cost of healthy food that is prohibitive in communities of lower income, was followed up by the point that eating at McDonalds is not necessarily cheaper, but that the power of advertising is so great that it has become a status symbol for many to be able to take their family to these places.

In response to this discussion, Ambassador van Oosterom had to admit that he found these concerns ironic, and stated that if the richest country in the world couldn't solve their own problems, then perhaps it wasn't a UN problem.

Dr. Meydani offered the simple, yet increasingly prevalent, solution of encouraging urban communities to find ways to start growing their own food again. Her organization actually does have a garden, they take the produce to their local shelter.

In response to concerns raised about the vast changes that are being made to the food that we are eating, changes on the cellular level which are possibly changing us, and what direction is the world heading in terms of bringing about a workable consensus, Sharon Brennan Haylock, Director of the FAO Liaison office in New York, brought up the existence of CODEX Alimentarius, which is the international body of food regulations. What power Codex exerts in the context of other international trade treaties and agreements is also the topic worthy of another seminar.

Ms. Haylock also concluded the Q&A by stressing the many areas to which Food Safety was linked. Without safe food we do not get adequate food nutrition. Without nutrition people fall ill, they cannot work, children cannot go to school. So food is directly related to a sound economy and to access to education.

How will the second largest exporter of food protect itself from seed patent consolidation?

After the session, Bircan Unver of The Light Millennium, was able to get an answer to her question about the problem of genetic engineering and its path to the patenting and monopolization of all the world's seed supply, and how was the Netherlands, as the world's second largest food exporter, going to protect itself from this trend. The Ambassador stated that they were working on selective breeding of their seeds, and his country has and applies strong regulations against GMO-based agriculture, and do not allow modified seeds in the country.

There is a definite correlation between increased chemical usage and susceptibility to food and water borne illness

While all the speakers mentioned the use of chemicals in their list of concerns, none had really explored this particular risk. And so I brought up this question with Dr. Meydani as the meeting was adjourned about the relationship between the increased chemical usage that genetic engineering has brought about, and how might this co-relate with the incidence of food borne disease, particularly considering the WHO just declared glyphosate ìa probable carcinogen.î What could this possibly mean for our immune systems? As most readers will know glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, which is the herbicide most GM crops have been engineered to withstand. She concurred that there is a definite correlation between increased chemical usage and susceptibility to food and water borne illness, and that there had been research done in this area. I hope to share some of these studies very soon.

World Health Day - UN April 7, 2015 - Audience - Slide Presentation

Photo credits: Bircan UNVER, The Light Millennium


It was refreshing that on this celebration of the World Health Organizations, Food Safety issues were not just confined to the issues of microbial contamination, but to wider dangers of chemical contamination as well, and that newer technologies have not been accepted outright, but are very much a part of the food production discussion. In fact, if you go to the FAO website, you will see genetically engineered food as one of the causes for concern because of allergies and questions of cellular instability.

Food safety and food access also included the importance of ensuring food quality. And it was not just about removing contamination, but ensuring a strong immune system. Vitamin supplementation could be considered or just ensuring the adequate intake of fruits and vegetables. This all seemed to reflect quite well with the work of eco-agriculturalists such as John Kempf, who talk about the immune system of plants, and that the more you supported plants with a system of nutrition the hardier they were against disease and pest infestations.

It was also interesting to note that the first set of questions in this forum had to do with first world problems, and the Ambassador's sense of irony leads to an interesting point: what can the UN do when problems are pinpointed within one of the Security Council's own Permanent Member states? And its most powerful one? And why are we exporting this structure to other parts of the world? After years of large philanthropic institutions, government policies and economic aid banks all encouraging population movements away from the countryside and into the cities, basically encouraging agribusiness rather than agriculture, we have come full circle now, encouraging people to learn how to garden again.

The discussion encompassed many areas to help us figure out how to improve everyone's access to good quality and affordable food. Also importantly the question of free trade treaties and how it will affect a country's sovereign laws and regulations was touched on. We can never have enough light on this labyrinthian subject. The network of treaties, agreements and world trade courts must be understood if we are to ensure food safety, food sovereignty and good health in this globalized food system.

- . -

Brief History of the World Health Organization – WHO:
When diplomats met to form the United Nations in 1945, one of the things they discussed was setting up a global health organization.
WHO’s Constitution came into force on 7 April 1948 – a date we now celebrate every year as World Health Day.
World Health Organization

Top World’s Agriculture producing countries - a reference from the 2012:

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