clock menu more-arrow no yes
Nick Harris/Flickr

Foodborne illnesses are undoubtedly on the rise in North America. But as burrito chain Chipotle scrambles to put tougher supply chain requirements in place and save its reputation following a disastrous E. coli outbreak that sickened at least 45 people, other parts of the less-developed world have it much worse off.

The World Health Organization just released a report on the state of foodborne disease worldwide, painting for the first time a comprehensive global picture of how preventable foodborne illnesses are affecting different regions of the world.

The 252-page report, which was a decade in the making, reveals that one in ten people worldwide — or about 600 million people — will get sick from contaminated food each year. Nearly one-third of people who die as a result of such illnesses are children under five, despite the fact that they make up just 9 percent of the global population.

The report looks at illness and disease caused not just by bacteria like E. coli and listeria, but also viruses, parasites, toxins, and chemicals.

The biggest killer is diarrheal disease, which is generally caused by consuming consuming undercooked or raw meat, dairy, eggs, or produce that's infected with bacteria such as E. coli or norovirus; such conditions sicken 220 million children each year and kill 96,000.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds "The risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation." Reuters notes that poor food-handling practices by street vendors is problematic in many countries.

But the global supply chain is also partially to thank: "If there is one country where food safety is weak and this country exports food to other countries, [it] becomes the weakest chain in the whole food production system," the director of WHO's Department of Food Safety, Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, said at a news briefing. That's something the Food & Drug Administration is trying to combat stateside with its newly introduced food safety rules, which makes companies importing food into the U.S. accountable for making sure that imported food meets U.S. safety standards.

According to a WHO news release, the organization "is working closely with national governments to help set and implement food safety strategies and policies" that it hopes will help lessen the global impact of preventable foodborne illnesses going forward. Clearly, fighting the burden of foodborne diseases — much like lessening the impact of climate change — will have to be a worldwide effort.

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day