Defending against zoonoses through food security

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 200 illnesses are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals.

Since consumers cannot always see, taste or smell the threat of contaminated food, food safety laboratories around the world serve as a line of defense to prevent and stop the spread of harmful disease agents. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), supports laboratories around the world to help detect, monitor and track contaminants and agrochemical residues in food.

To date, IAEA support for food safety testing has focused on the detection and control of chemical residues such as veterinary drugs, pesticides and contaminants. Many projects have included microbiological testing and pathogen detection, components that are expected to be expanded in the future.

“Through routine testing, surveillance and participation in epidemiological investigations, food safety laboratories can detect pathogen deviations from normal situations and identify emerging pathogens,” said ASM. Saifullah, scientific director of the Institute of Food and Radiological Biology (IFRB) in Bangladesh. Central commission of nuclear energy. “Food Safety Laboratories can help with zoonotic disease preparedness and response, including in emergencies.”

Foodborne diseases and zoonoses

Some food-borne illnesses such as salmonellosis, caused by salmonella bacteria, are considered zoonoses, that is, infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Unsafe practices on farms, improper food handling, and contamination during manufacturing or distribution are some of the routes by which Salmonella, along with other pathogens, reaches the foods we eat. “For many zoonotic diseases, the critical medium for transmission is food,” said James Sasanya, food safety specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Center for Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) agrees. In July 2020, he published Preventing the Next Pandemic – Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission, a report reflecting on the causes of COVID-19 and other zoonoses. The report found that of all new and emerging human infectious diseases, approximately 75% are transmitted from other animals to humans, and most zoonoses occur indirectly, for example through the food system.

Animals may appear healthy despite illness, but once illness is transmitted to humans, it can manifest itself and have significant health consequences. “It is important for countries to be prepared and regularly perform food safety testing for zoonoses and other microbial hazards,” Sasanya said. “Who knows what, where and when the next pandemic will be. When considering pandemics and potential endemics, it is essential to cover food security appropriately. »

Strengthening of laboratories

The Joint FAO/IAEA Center has been instrumental in helping many countries establish, maintain and improve their food safety laboratories. In Bangladesh, for example, FAO and IAEA supported the development of the Veterinary Drug Residue Analysis Laboratory (VDRAL) at the IFRB. Through IAEA technical cooperation projects, FAO-IAEA experts have trained VDRAL scientists on how to test for a range of food hazards and how to screen and verify residues and contaminants in food.

FAO and IAEA experts provided VDRAL with technical advice for the development, validation and implementation of analytical methods. “VDRAL now uses different isotopic and nuclear analytical tools and techniques for the determination of antimicrobial residues and mycotoxins in foods of animal and plant origin,” Saifullah said, explaining that efforts are also underway to strengthen the food microbiological testing capabilities, including aspects of foodborne zoonoses.

In the past, Bangladesh outsourced food testing to other countries. Today, VDRAL analysts can use screening tools such as rapid radio receptor tests and isotopic verification methods to determine veterinary antimicrobial residues and mycotoxins in foods. More than 3,000 food samples, including eggs, milk, chicken and shrimp, are analyzed each year to generate residue data. This data enables regulatory institutions, such as the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, to take action to protect public health and improve the country’s food safety control system.

“It’s nice to see a lab start up with limited capacity to be able to provide food safety analytical support for the country, as well as attract significant government support to ensure its sustainability,” said Gerald Cirilo Reyes, Head of management of IAEA programs for Bangladesh.

Food safety networks

The Bangladesh IFRB collaborates with other food safety laboratories in Asia and the Pacific through the IAEA-coordinated program Asia Food Security Network. Food safety laboratories prevent foodborne incidences by controlling hazards through routine testing, monitoring and surveillance. But food safety systems are not flawless. “Incidents do happen, and it’s important that institutions and countries are prepared, not taking any risks – whether chemical, physical or microbiological, such as zoonoses – for granted,” Sasanya said.

Food Safety Asia Network laboratories share information and analytical methods, and participate in proficiency testing programs. This is essential to address regional food safety concerns and could be developed into a means of responding to food safety emergencies.

The Joint FAO/IAEA Center has also supported the creation and strengthening of food safety networks in other regions, such as Latin America and Africa. An IAEA project on food safety emergency response is developing isotopic and complementary rapid analysis methods in the laboratories of the Joint FAO/IAEA Center in Seibersdorf, Austria, and training members of the network to implement them in the field. “Such laboratory networks could in the future help countries respond to food safety emergencies, including foodborne zoonoses,” Sasanya said.

Read this article by Joanne Liou of the IAEA

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