Food safety

Shanghai Expo shines spotlight on Five Keys

Imagine a grain of rice bigger than a human thumb, carrots taller than a grown man. At Shanghai EXPO2010 where everything is big, a larger-than-life visual exhibition has given thousands of people a taste of what they can do to ensure the safety of their food.

From 11-15 October, WHO held an exhibition in the UN Pavilion of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Titled "Five Keys to Safer Food", it used eye-grabbing images of food to raise public awareness about simple ways to prevent foodborne disease.

"Consumers and food handlers throughout the world have a limited knowledge of risks associated with handling and preparing food," said Dr Peter Ben Embarek, WHO's food safety expert in China. "Education of consumers and food handlers to raise awareness of food safety risks is therefore essential to prevent foodborne diseases and ensure better health."

The Five Keys campaign is especially pertinent to the Expo's theme of Better City Better Life as city dwellers tend to eat out more due to busy work schedules and long commuting times. If they cook at home, they tend to have less space in the kitchen, and to take shortcuts in food preparation. All this creates to less-than-desirable conditions for food safety.

To ensure best practices at home and in food outlets, the exhibition listed the five keys to safer food: Keep clean, separate raw and cooked food, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials. It was complemented by smaller panels bearing more detailed explanations of each key.

Mother explaining Key 1

Among the visitors was a young mother from Nanjing in Jiangsu province, who took time to explain the panels to her five-year-old twins. "The messages are very clear and easy to understand," she said later. "We usually pay attention to these things, especially since we have children. We always wash our hands when we get home, and keep raw food separately from cooked food."

Another visitor from Beijing was concerned about pesticides in vegetables. "Are salads and raw vegetables safe?" she asked doubtfully. "But if I cook them, the nutrients will be gone."

Dr Ben Embarek assured her that the quick and light frying of Chinese cooking will help to retain most of the nutrients.

There were also questions about refrigeration. "I love fish and my freezer is full of them," said a Shanghainese man carrying his baby. "But I don't know how cold the freezer should be and how I can prepare frozen fish well." He was told that freezers should be set to -18 degrees centigrade while normal refrigerators can hover around 4 to 5 degrees. However, he was also made aware that home refrigerators are not designed to freeze food but only to keep already frozen foods.

"Sometimes very simple messages and measures can have a big impact on health protection. These Five Keys to Safer Food have already contributed to the prevention of foodborne illness and deserve to be communicated more widely" says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

The Expo is not the first global showcase for the Five Keys project. Since it was first developed in 2001, a total of 95 countries have used these messages in education projects. The Five Keys poster has been translated into 66 languages. In addition, these materials have been featured in mass gathering events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the World Cup in Africa in June 2010. They were also used at the Shanghai Expo, as part of the Guide for Travellers pamphlet popular among visitors.

In China, the Five Keys campaign has been under way since 2004. In order to reach out to all segments of the 1.3 billion population, WHO has been working with the National Centre for Health Inspection under the Ministry of Health to translate the materials already available in Mandarin into seven languages spoken by ethnic minorities in Tibet (Tibetan), Yunnan (Bai, Miao, Naxi, Yi), Xinjiang (Weiwuer or Uygur) and Inner Mongolia (Mongolian). They will be widely disseminated in the coming months in those areas' schools, restaurants, health care centres and factory canteens, among other locations.