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FAO Press Release 02/22

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For further information contact Erwin Northoff, FAO Media Relations Officer, tel: 0039 5705 2232/3105, mobile: 0039 348 2523616

or Gregory Hartl, WHO Communications Adviser for Food Safety, tel: 0041 227914458, mobile: 0041 792036715

Budapest, 28 February 2002 - The first Pan-European Food Safety Conference has called upon Central and Eastern European countries today to join a Rapid Alert System for Food Products, already operational in the European Union. According to the report of the meeting, the system "has proved to be useful to support public health, consumer protection and transparency in international food trade" and countries are "encouraged to participate".

The system currently covers the 15 EU member states, as well as Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. In the case where a product poses a serious and immediate risk to the health of consumers, the countries have a duty to provide information to the EU Commission to find and withdraw the product from the market. This information is shared among the countries participating in the system so that they can take immediate action.

The Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality, organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and hosted by the government of Hungary, ended today after four days of discussions.

The conference was an important first step towards the improvement of food safety and quality throughout the European region, FAO/WHO said. Some foodborne diseases such as Salmonellosis and Campylobacter are on the rise in Europe and tougher controls are needed to prevent the spread of these diseases, FAO/WHO said. Other concerns are chemical hazards such as dioxin, lead and cadmium, and pesticide residues. Food safety systems in the European region are often not fully transparent and many need to be improved, FAO/WHO said.

The conference urged countries to strengthen and harmonize disease surveillance, outbreak investigations, data reporting systems and diagnostic methods on food safety and quality.

"There is a need to increase the compatibility of food safety systems by implementing equivalence, transparency and harmonization of regulations and control across Europe," the final report said.

"Enhanced cooperation between the sectors of health and food production, agriculture and fisheries is necessary for food safety."

Better control of food safety and quality "in the whole food chain including internal checks of food and feed business operators should be introduced," according to the report. The primary responsibility of food and feed companies for the safety of their products should be legally established.

"Information on the results of all monitoring tests and the outcome of official food inspections and other official food control activities, should be made public." Many countries still do not provide this information to the public, according to FAO and WHO.

All countries should examine "commercial food safety and nutrition claims on labels to ensure that consumers receive accurate information and are not mislead."

The conference stressed that the creation of strong and independent consumer organizations should be encouraged. An interactive open dialogue between scientists, risk managers, producers and consumers at all stages of the decision making process is a key to better understand risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.

Training and education in food hygiene should be used to increase the competence of workers and effectiveness of inspectors throughout the food chain. Education of consumers should begin at school age.

The conference asked FAO, WHO and European donors to assist transition countries in improving capacity for food safety control through training, institution building and legislation.

"Not only the candidates for EU membership but all transition countries in Europe need assistance to improve their food safety and quality systems. There should not be two different groups of countries in Europe," said Diana Banati (Hungary), chair of the conference.

Food safety experts from 47 countries, as well as food producers' and consumers' associations from Western, Central and Eastern Europe and other countries in transition attended the meeting in Budapest.

The recommendations of the conference will be submitted to ministers attending the 23rd FAO Regional Conference for Europe (Cyprus, 29-31 May 2002) and to the 52nd meeting of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe (Copenhagen, 16-19 September 2002) for follow-up activities.

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