Rosanna Pike | Food Safety: A Public Health Priority | comment

Access to safe, nutritious food is a basic human right; Food plays a crucial role in preventing and fighting disease. Food safety refers to the handling, preparation, and storage of food to prevent foodborne diseases caused by consuming contaminated food or beverages.

The need for infection control health and safety practices has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is no evidence that food can transmit COVID-19, it is still important to maintain food safety to ensure optimal health, especially for vulnerable individuals.

Foodborne illnesses are a preventable but underreported public health problem in the Caribbean, with rising rates straining the healthcare system and individual households. Unsafe foods cause more than 200 diseases, including diarrheal and viral diseases, reproductive and developmental problems, and cancer. During the holiday season, improper handling and insufficient refrigeration of foods prepared in advance and in bulk can increase the risk of these conditions. Most foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogens, which are organisms that cause disease upon entering the human body. Pathogens include bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites or harmful toxins/chemicals.

The most commonly recognized foodborne infections are those caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli, all of which cause severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea and fever in infected hosts. A variety of foods have been linked to each of the above bacteria, including unpasteurized (raw) milk, chicken, shellfish, pork, vegetables and contaminated water. Vulnerable groups such as infants, young children, immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly may fare worse if they contract a foodborne illness.


While adequate amounts of food are important, food quality is critical to meeting basic nutritional needs. A healthy diet includes not only monitoring food categories or nutrients on a daily basis, but also proper food handling. For food to benefit your health, it must be safe to eat.

Food security plays a crucial role in food security, where all people have physical and economic access, at all times, to food that meets their nutritional needs for an active and healthy life. Unsafe foods prevent the absorption of important nutrients. Micronutrient deficiencies (e.g., vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and iron deficiencies) contribute to “hidden hunger” with consequences that may not be immediately or readily apparent but can affect metabolism, cognitive development, and the immune system, particularly with children. Poor nutrition increases susceptibility to disease, which can lead to further malnutrition.


The safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has been debated almost since the term was introduced in 1983 with the development of antibiotic-resistant tobacco.

A 2016 report by the National Academies of Science, Genetically modified plants: experiences and perspectives, discusses human health implications. Human health and safety claims of GMO foods have included increased risks from cancer, kidney disease, obesity, celiac disease, diabetes and allergies. However, it must be emphasized that the science is constantly changing, the science of genetic engineering is relatively young and the long-term effects are still uncertain. Absolute safety cannot be guaranteed for certain foods.


Factors that determine our food choices also affect food safety. Human activities and behaviors play an important role in food safety. People need to understand this connection and how to reduce their risk of foodborne illness. Food hazards, including germs, contaminants like glass, and chemicals like unsafe levels of pesticides, can enter the food supply at every stage from farm to fork, some of which may go undetected when food is purchased or consumed. Additionally, foods like peanuts, eggs, and shellfish can cause unwanted allergic reactions in some people.

There are many challenges to keeping our food safe, which are faced by the food industry and regulators (including tracing food back to its sources, cultural differences in food preparation, inconsistent worker training systems, and increasing imports) and consumers (like reading food labels , cooking and storing food at appropriate temperatures, separating risky foods or properly cleaning hands and surfaces).


A secure food supply supports economy, agriculture, trade and tourism, contributes to food and nutrition security and underpins sustainable development, as foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health systems and harming economies, tourism and trade. Food safety must be a shared responsibility of all stakeholders, and care must be taken to stimulate action to prevent, detect and manage food-borne risks, thereby contributing to food security, human health and economic prosperity. Effective actions with specific roles are as follows:

– Government – ​​Developing modern food legislation, ensuring adequate food testing laboratories to respond to food safety risks, conducting food and labeling literacy campaigns and encouraging cross-sectoral collaboration (between public health, agriculture, etc.) for joint action.

– Producers and processors – implement food safety systems to ensure safe food for consumers.

– Food processors/consumers – read food labels, make informed decisions and become familiar with common food hazards.

– Professional Associations – Formed technical groups on food safety, conducted research, developed/promoted safe food guidelines for the public, educated people on the use of food labels and promoted the consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables.


Safe food handling can prevent foodborne illnesses and reduce hospitalizations for these diseases amid the COVID-19 pandemic. When shopping, choose fresh foods and check food labels for expiration dates and allergens. At every step of food preparation, follow the WHO’s five steps to food safety:


– Wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after shopping, handling food packaging and before preparing, handling and eating food.

– Wash cutting boards, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water.

– Consider using paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces or wash cloth towels/sponges in hot water frequently.

– Rinse fresh fruit and vegetables under running water. Scrub solid products with a vegetable brush.

– Protect kitchen areas from insects, pests and animals.


– No cross contamination. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other groceries in your shopping cart, grocery bags and fridge.

– Use separate cutting boards for fresh produce and raw meat, poultry and seafood.

– Never place cooked food on a plate that previously contained raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs unless the plate has been washed in hot, soapy water.

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– Cook at the right temperature.

– Color and texture are unreliable safety indicators. Use a food thermometer to ensure meat, poultry, seafood and egg products are cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria.

– For even cooking in a microwave oven, cover the food, stir and turn or turn the bowl by hand once or twice during cooking if a turntable is not available. Always wait for the cooking process to finish before checking the internal temperature.

– Thoroughly heat cooked food; Bring sauces, soups and gravy to the boil.


– Immediately refrigerate food.

– Refrigerate meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and other perishable goods within two hours of cooking or shopping (within one hour if the outside temperature is above 30°C).

– Never defrost food at room temperature, e.g. B. on the countertop. Safely thaw food in the refrigerator, cold water, or microwave and cook instantly.

– Marinate food in the fridge.

• Use clean water and clean raw materials.

– Raw materials, including water and ice, may be contaminated with dangerous microorganisms and chemicals.

– Use safe water or treat it to make it safe.

– Do not use food beyond the expiration date.

– Choose fresh and healthy foods.

– For safety reasons, choose processed foods, such as B. pasteurized milk.

Safer food promises healthier and longer lives, cheaper healthcare and a more resilient food industry.

Rosanna Pike is Health Education Officer, Global Health Advocacy Project, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send feedback to [email protected]

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