Safe food for Europe, west and east

Experts from all over Europe will meet in Budapest to plan measures to improve food safety


Inspecting cheeses at a cooperative in Hungary -- a country that can look forward to better access to EU markets. But what about access for eastern countries not joining the EU? (FAO/20991/R.Faidutti)

Many Europeans are frightened of their food. Their confidence in its safety has been shattered by mad cow disease, the 1999 dioxin scare in Belgium and a host of microbial horrors such as salmonella and listeria, which cause potentially fatal diseases.

The European Commission has regulations to protect consumers, and member states have their own. But are they enough? What about the accession countries -- those preparing to join the European Union -- and nations further east? And are European Union regulations a trade barrier? Safe food is important, but blocking imports could trap rural communities in Eastern Europe in poverty.

Food safety experts, consumers' associations and NGOs from 43 countries in Europe and the former Soviet republics in Asia will discuss these questions at the Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality in Budapest, Hungary, from 25-28 February. It's the second of two major meetings on food safety this year organized by FAO in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO). The first, the Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators, was in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the end of January.

"The Budapest Conference will be different not just in regional emphasis but in scope," says Niek Schelling, an FAO expert on food standards, who is coordinating the Conference for FAO. "The Morocco Forum was a brainstorming session, and it brought together professionals from around the world. This meeting will seek solutions to specific European issues."

How safe is the food?
Specific food hazards will be among the issues to be discussed at the Conference. Surveillance for mad cow disease will have a workshop to itself. Other hazards to be addressed include the increase in reports of drug-resistant strains of salmonella. In addition, reported cases of the common gastrointestinal infection campylobacteriosis -- which can cause chronic health problems, including neurological disorders -- have increased since the 1980s, especially in the United Kingdom. Chemical contaminants also remain a problem.

Many countries in Eastern Europe have an information gap. If you do not measure food hazards, you don't realize you have a problem -- and the amount of data coming west is low. Different definitions of technical terms, and different ways of gathering and collating information, can make comparison and interpretation of data difficult. And old central reporting systems may have been disrupted by political change.

In addition, food hazards in Eastern Europe are different from those in Western Europe. For example, in Eastern Europe, chemical contamination tends to occur in "hot spots" as a result of industrial and agricultural pollution -- such as the partly drained, polluted Aral Sea. In bordering countries, it may be the cause of high rates of: anaemia; kidney, liver and respiratory diseases; cancer; tuberculosis; and other disorders.

In the EU, if all the eggs from a certain location are found to be contaminated, people can get their eggs from somewhere else. In poorer countries in the East, people don't have this option, and many really might go hungry. So food safety is a food security issue, too.

Effective food safety requires an integrated 'farm-to-fork' approach, with control strategies for all the processing stages at which contamination could occur. This requires resources and training. "We'll look at ways of funding and organizing such food safety strategies at the Conference in in Budapest and afterwards," says Dr Schelling.

Family mealtime in Tajikistan. Consumers in the eastern countries have to know that their food is safe -- but they also need opportunities to export it westwards. (FAO/20636/E.Yeves)

Partners in trade and safety
But trade is also an issue. Eighty-five percent of the food trade in Europe is within the European Union -- opportunities for Eastern European countries are limited partly by the EU's different food-safety standards. The European Commission supports the Conference and wants to remove barriers to trade, but some are more difficult to remove than others. For example, slaughterhouses exporting to the EU must comply with very strict standards -- not least because of mad cow disease.

However, countries may be able to upgrade their food-safety standards "à la carte". Moldova, for example, has expressed interest in updating its standards for particular exportable products such as fruits and fresh vegetables, using FAO and WHO's food-safety standards, the Codex Alimentarius, as a guide.

Another issue for the Budapest meeting will be transparency. People are increasingly unwilling to trust the experts on food safety, and they need to be able to see how the regulatory systems work. Getting food-safety information to the public is important in another sense, too. Safe foodstuffs can turn dangerous through poor storage or preparation by consumers in their own homes -- where food-borne illnesses are often contracted.

21 February 2002

Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality


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