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By Zulima Palacio
Washington
16 October 2007
 
Watch Food Safety report

As the world's population grows, the need to ensure food safety from farms to fork has become a major international concern, with most of the attention focused on livestock. Producer Zulima Palacio talked to some of the world authorities in this field.  Mil Arcega narrates the story.

The world's population is growing at a tremendous pace - adding about 78 million people a year. United Nations estimates show that by the year 2030 more than eight billion people will inhabit the Earth, straining the world's ability to feed itself.

Bernard Vallat is the director of the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE [for Office International des Epizooties] describes the operation. "We know that we have in the coming 10 years, one billion additional meat consumers in China, India and other emerging countries" he said.

Francois Le Gall
Francois Le Gall
"In the following two decades the demand for animal products is going to double and so the supply is going to follow the demand and because of all kind of constraints, this supply of animal products is going to come from developing countries,” said Francois Le Gall.

Le Gall, of the World Bank agrees with Vallat's assessment that only 40 out of about 200 countries in the world have the capacity to respond to a health crisis that originates from animal disease.

Two diseases in particular  - mad cow and avian flu - have had devastating effects in the last 20 years. Mad cow disease first emerged among cattle in Britain in the mid 1980s, and since then has appeared in other European countries, North America and Asia. It has forced the destruction of large herds, caused huge economic losses and the deaths of about 150 people.

Avian flu, also known as the H5N1 virus, first appeared in 2003, and has forced the slaughter of about 100 million birds in Asia, especially in Vietnam.  The human and economic losses have been devastating.

"This is not a new situation, diseases that are coming from animals to humans - it's happened since beginning of humanity.  But the reason for the new trends now is the globalization, climate change, mobility of the population, the globalization of animal products, etceteras.  Every year we have a new disease and 75 percent of these diseases are of animal origin." Le Gall added.

Le Gall says globalization has enhanced the probability of having pandemics. Other illnesses such as West Nile virus, bluetongue and foot and mouth disease are some recent examples of highly contagious animal illnesses that can travel around the globe just as fast as humans do.   

In order to keep their livestock healthy, producers have embraced the regular use of antibiotics.

Bernard Vallat
Bernard Vallat
Bernard Vallat from OIE says the use of antibiotics can be dangerous if they are not carefully controlled by veterinarians.  But he says thousands of tons of antibiotics are used worldwide every year. "If antibiotics are used as sweets [like candy] - without control - this is dangerous, because bacteria in animals can become resistant and then infect humans."

The population pressure for the fast and massive production of animal products has also forced livestock production into higher density, with fewer but more productive animal breeds.

Anni McLeod of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says genetic diversity may be needed in the future. "In poultry for example, there are about three or four companies that control most of the poultry breeds in the world and there are very, very few breeds that make up the genetic stock of all the commercial poultry that we have" McLeod said.

There are no global estimates for environmental, social and economic losses due to illnesses of animals raised for human consumption.  McLeod suggests thinking of a very large number and adding several zeros.

Anni McLeod
Anni McLeod
McLeod adds, "Almost any estimate we come out with is going to be like an iceberg, and the part that affects really poor people would be the piece under water, that you don't know about."

McLeod and others agree that if nothing is done to prevent diseases in livestock for human consumption the world could face a major crisis in the next 10 years.

"I wouldn't call Avian influenza in any way positive, but perhaps one thing it has enabled us to do is to highlight the fact that investment is going to be needed for a long time" McLeod said.

The international community is mobilizing to meet the challenge. The World Bank, the U.N. and the World Organization for Animal Health or OIE are all working together on several levels regarding food safety, veterinarian services, packing and transportation.

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