Mid-term data released from an ongoing World Health Organization study of the safety of the world’s food supply reveal that unsafe foods, including meat and poultry, cause 1.2 million deaths per year among people older than age five in just Southeast Asia and Africa – three times more than WHO had previously thought occurred worldwide. Moreover, the 1.2 million figure is just a fraction of what the final, global total will likely be, according to the director of food safety at WHO.

"When we look at some pathogens, the problems are clearly getting worse among what we call emerging pathogens," Jorgen Schlundt, told MEATPOULTRY.com on the telephone from his office at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. He added: "A lot of this is related to meat."

He said the study will be completed in two to three years and is now investigating foodborne pathogens in China, Latin America and the various Arabian nations, but already it has revealed that the spread of high-volume agriculture – sometimes called "industrial farming" – is both a cause and a detriment to pathogenic contamination of foods, depending on the region and available technology. "There are areas of improvement and some areas where it’s just the opposite," he commented, noting that some countries have brought pathogens such as Salmonella under control but struggle with others, including Campylobacter or E. coli O157:H7.

Earlier, Schlundt told the Reuters news agency: "Literally millions are dying every year and we know that a lot of these could be prevented. There is a realization that instead of doing what we did in the past, in the future we should really focus on where the problems are."

The dangers to children aged five and younger posed by contaminated foods have long been understood to be significant, but the WHO study shows that the threats to adults have been greatly underestimated. Schlundt told Reuters: "We now have documentation of a significant burden outside the less than five group. That is major new information."

In his interview with MEATPOULTRY.com, the Danish veterinarian said the sources for pathogenic contamination of foods vary from region to region. "For some of the pathogens, we believe something could be done at the farm level. For others, we believe something could be done in processing and distribution, and for still others we think we can make improvements in food safety in the home kitchens," he said.

He commented that meat and poultry companies in the United States and other nations that have had experience with controlling pathogens would be valuable sources of information. "We would want them to share their experiences both good and bad," he said. "Sometimes you learn just as much, if not more, from a bad experience."

WHO has brought together a coalition of 176 food-safety organizations worldwide, including U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, specifically to create a forum for sharing food-safety information.

"We’ve had a lot of collaboration," he told MEATPOULTRY.com, "but clearly, the study shows that there is much work to be done."