Summer 2015

The Missing Link in Food Safety

A message from the director of the HNRCA


100915_3552_KMA_HNRCA718.jpgWe all know the world is getting smaller, and as we globalize, changes in food production, distribution, quality and accessibility make it easy for people to be exposed to contaminated food. This is in addition to the emergence of new and more virulent pathogens, and an increase in antimicrobial resistance in humans. Reducing food contaminants is incredibly important for the health of the global population; however, protecting ourselves from foodborne illness does not end when the plate reaches the table. Nutrition that keeps the immune system strong is important in optimizing people’s resistance to pathogens.

The United Nations addressed this multidimensional issue on World Health Day 2015, which was themed “Food Safety: From Farm to Plate, Make Food Safe.” At the event in April, I spoke about the fact that vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women and the elderly, are particularly susceptible to foodborne pathogens. These populations account for 90 percent of listeria infections—the third-leading cause of death from food poisoning globally. Nutrition plays a key role in protecting these individuals from foodborne pathogens. The recent multistate listeria outbreak in the United States luckily was not catastrophic, but not all nations are as well equipped as ours on nutritional defense.

Changes in food quality and availability can occur without warning, as we saw in the recent earthquakes in Nepal [see “Lessons from Nepal”]. Food systems can be set back years and expose populations to numerous health risks. At this crucial time in Nepal, taking steps to reduce the amount of contaminants in food is incredibly important, as is making sure those at high risk for infection, such as children and the elderly, can get nutritious food.

When it comes to food safety, most of the attention has been on the continuum of farm to table. We need to extend the continuum to include our ability to fend off foodborne illness. Given the breadth of research and scholarly activities in food and agriculture, biomedical sciences and public health policy at the HNRCA and Friedman School, we are in a unique position to advance the World Health Day theme. Let’s make it “from farm to plate to people: make food safe and make a difference in the lives of people around the world.”

Simin Nikbin Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Director, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging

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