Contaminated food a significant cause of disease

4 December 2015

What is significant is how much serious foodborne diseases affects young children.

One of Australia's leading epidemiologists has issued a warning about the risks of foodborne disease in the wake of new figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) which show contaminated food to be a major cause of death.

The WHO figures show contaminated food causes more than 600 million cases of illnesses and 420,000 deaths globally each year. In Australia there are around 4.1 million cases of illnesses and 86 deaths annually.

Associate Professor Martyn Kirk of The Australian National University (ANU) National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health chaired one of the WHO task forces and said foodborne disease was a particular issue for young children.

"What is significant is how much serious foodborne diseases affects young children," said Associate Professor Kirk.

"There is a need for international agencies to prioritise food safety, particularly in low- and middle-income countries."

Associate Professor Kirk urged Australians to take care when preparing food.

"People can avoid foodborne disease by sticking to the five rules of safe food," he said.

"Keep your hands, utensils and cooking surfaces clean; separate raw and cooked foods to avoid cross-contamination; cook thoroughly to kill bacteria; keep foods at safe temperatures; and use safe water."

The Foodborne Disease Epidemiology Reference Group is a WHO advisory body which has worked for several years to estimate the burden of illness from food.

Associate Professor Kirk said the task has proven difficult due to the lack of data in many parts of the world.

"This is the first time we have been able to say how much disease is occurring from food and the results should influence government policies internationally," he said.

The figures were released as part of the WHO Estimates of the global burden of foodborne diseases report.

The full WHO estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases report can be found here -

Associate Professor Kirk's study was published in PLOS Medicine.