George Cheriyan and Madhu Sudan Sharma from CUTS International - Food Safety: A shared responsibility

07 June 2020

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.



As part of our blog series for World Food Safety Day 2020, we asked consumer advocacy leaders to share how they are taking action to protect our right to safe, healthy and sufficient food.

George Cheriyan (Director) and Madhu Sudan Sharma (Senior Programme Officer) from CUTS International give a global picture of the issues underlying food safety and discuss the responsibility of all stakeholders in reducing the burden of foodborne disease.

It’s undeniable that food safety and nutrition are global challenges. Purchasing and eating habits have undergone drastic changes across the globe over the last two decades and new food production, processing and distribution techniques have developed to reflect this change.

In many parts of the globe, we have seen a shift in consumption habits, from home-cooked meals to an increase in ready-made packaged foods. While developed countries like the United States currently have the highest rates of fast food consumption in the world, followed by France, developing economies are steadily catching up. The fast food industry in India is growing by 18 percent each year, with the country being among the top ten for fast food consumption in the world. In lower-income countries, on the other hand, consumers often still lack the resources to access fast food products.


The global food safety landscape: what are the risks?

A major concern is that this shift in food habits has paved the way for consumer health issues. Available data shows that every year, nearly one in ten people globally (an estimated 600 million individuals) fall ill due to food safety issues and 420,000 die after eating food contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemical substances or contaminated water. Several studies show that children under the age of five, who are particularly drawn to junk food and other products that are high in sugar, salt and fats, coupled with unhygienic hands, carry 40 percent of the foodborne disease burden, resulting in 125,000 deaths every year.

Foodborne diseases also hinder socio-economic development by straining health care systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade. The value of trade in food is USD 1.6 trillion, which is approximately 10% of total annual trade globally. Unsafe food hinders development in many low- and middle-income countries and their economies, which lose around USD 95 billion in productivity associated with illness, disability, and premature death suffered by workers.

The broader picture: health & nutrition

Aside from the risks directly associated with food safety, the nutritional value of food also plays a key role. Malnutrition, in all its forms, includes under-nutrition (wasting, stunting, under-weight), inadequate vitamins or micronutrient-related malnutrition and micronutrient excess, and overweight and obesity. Different forms of malnutrition are harmful for human health and often result in diet-related noncommunicable diseases.

Alarming data from the WHO shows that globally around 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, while 462 million are underweight. 47 million children under 5 years of age are wasted, 14.3 million are severely wasted and 144 million are stunted, while 38.3 million are overweight or obese. Around 45 percent of deaths among children under-5 years of age are linked to under-nutrition. These challenges are mostly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, however in these same countries rates of childhood overweight and obesity are also rising. Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century as overweight children are likely to become obese adults. The developmental, economic, social, and medical impacts of the global burden of malnutrition is serious and persistent, for individuals and their families, but also for wider communities and countries.  

Multi-stakeholder responsibility


Food recalls and spoilage are wasteful, costly, and can adversely affect trade and consumer confidence. International food trade is increasing and bringing important social and economic benefits, but it also makes the spread of foodborne disease around the world easier, which can lead to damage to trade and tourism, loss of earnings, unemployment and litigation.

To achieve this, the responsibility of ensuring safe and nutritious food lies with all stakeholders, including policy-makers, producers, businesses, consumers, civil society organisations, academic and scientific institutions, and more. While these stakeholders each have diverse responsibilities and accountabilities, the multi-dimensional nature of food safety and quality make their roles highly interconnected and interdependent. Active collaboration among the stakeholders involved in the food chain is therefore indispensable to ensure the effectiveness.

Food safety and nutritional properties must be guaranteed at all stages of the supply chain, including manufacture, processing, packaging, storage, transportation, distribution, trade, catering, and retail, whether for food products or ingredients. Every consumer has the right to expect that the food they purchase is safe to eat.

Looking ahead: reducing the burden of foodborne disease

Continuous improvement of national and international food safety standards, recall of unsafe foods, and promoting adequate hygiene practices in the food and agricultural sectors are some of the vital requirements to minimise harm to consumers.

Policy developments should be comprehensive in their assessment of risks and vulnerability across all sections of the population, providing assurance that food is suitable for consumption. Food businesses should adopt the hygienic practices set out by relevant governments and use appropriate packaging and labelling to protect food from contamination and maintain confidence in internationally traded food. Consumers should also recognize their role by following relevant instructions and applying appropriate food hygiene measures.

According to the FAO and WHO, in addition, investment in consumer food safety education has the potential to reduce foodborne disease and return savings of up to USD10 for each dollar invested. Health education programmes should include consumers, to help them understand the importance of healthy and safe food and empower them to make informed choices.

From farm to plate, every stakeholder has a responsibility to help prevent, detect and manage foodborne health risks.