As Global Food Chain Grows, So Does Risk of Illness

A few years ago, I was bored on a long flight and struck up a conversation with a man sitting in my row. It turned out he worked in food production, which was automatically interesting to me.

The conversation turned fascinating, though, when he described just what he did: He was involved in the production of frozen fish, the kind that you buy in a supermarket: sliced into servings, breaded and packed into boxes. The fish that I bought in a U.S. supermarket, he said, was probably caught in American waters, shipped to Asia to be sliced, breaded and packed, and shipped back across the ocean to be sold again.

I’d always known that some of the food I buy came from far away, but it had never occurred to me to think about how many trips across the globe food might make before it landed on my plate. Now, though, the food chain is global—and as the World Health Organization highlights today in its annual World Health Day observance, global sourcing means globalized risk.

“Food production has been industrialized and its trade and distribution have been globalized,” Dr Margaret Chan, the WHO’s Director-General, said in a statement. “These changes introduce multiple new opportunities for food to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals.”

How globalized? Here’s one example. The Global Canopy Programme, a British nonprofit, estimates that a fast-food meal of a burger and fries contains ingredients from 75 supply chains, moving back and forth across multiple countries. Want another? See how many stops trucks filled with strawberries makes just between California and the East Coast:

We already know that food is vulnerable to contamination in a way that risks making us sick. Just look, for instance, at the food-safety scandals in China, or the recently concluded chicken Salmonella outbreak in the U.S., which sickened 634 people in 29 states.

And those problems were confined to single countries. What’s new, and what the WHO is highlighting, is how difficult it is to even get a handle on the risks of foodborne illness when foods move back and forth across borders in stages of production. A 2011 outbreak of E. coli in Germany, for instance—which sickened more than 3,700 people and cost $1.3 billion—turns out to have originated with salad sprouts grown from seeds that were raised, and somehow contaminated, in Egypt.

In a new estimate, the first from an ongoing project, the organization says that in a single year, 582 million people around the world suffer foodborne illness, and up to 351,000 die. Two-fifths of them, the WHO says, are children.

As is often the case with the WHO, the organization has advice, and the ability to highlight problems, but limited ability to compel change. (It is a global advisory body, not a government, after all.) What it is urging today, besides awareness of the problem, are simple steps that can reduce average consumers’ risks from food contamination. The steps are as simple as washing your hands, separating raw and cooked foods, and keeping foods at safe temperatures—but if followed, they could keep us safe from the accidental contamination of food by disease organisms.

Those individual consumer steps won’t protect any of us, of course, from deliberate bad actors, companies or individuals who might perceive the global food chain simply as an opportunity for  profit. But they can reduce the potential danger to our households and to our families, and in a world that seems full of risks give us back some control.