TWENTY-THIRD FAO REGIONAL CONFERENCE FOR EUROPE
NICOSIA, CYPRUS, 29-31 May 2002
FOOD SAFETY AND QUALITY
(Outcome of the Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality, Budapest, 25-28 February 2002)
I. OUTCOME OF THE PAN-EUROPEAN CONFERENCE
1. The proposal to convene a Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality1 was made at the 22nd FAO Regional Conference for Europe. Following a preparatory process, which included two meetings of representatives of European countries, FAO and WHO at FAO, Rome, the Pan European Conference on Food Safety and Quality was organized jointly by FAO and WHO in Budapest, 25 - 28 February 2002. The Conference was attended by 177 delegates from 46 European member countries of FAO and/or WHO (hence nearly all countries of the region), plus 23 observers from non-European member countries and from international governmental and non-governmental organizations. Representation was at a senior technical level. As decided by the 22nd FAO Regional Conference for Europe, the conclusions and recommendations arising from Pan-European Conference would be submitted to the 23rd FAO Regional Conference for consideration.
2. The objectives of the Pan-European Conference were: (a) to provide a platform for European countries to discuss food safety and quality issues of specific importance to the region, and (b) to consider ways and means to improve and harmonize the transparency and reliability of European food chains in order to strengthen consumer confidence in food products.
3. The participants identified uncertainties about food safety risks and increasing incidence of food-borne diseases, as major concerns affecting public health and disturbing confidence of consumers in food products. Lack of transparency of food control systems and discrepancies in food policies across Europe were recognized as main sources of unfavourable food safety and quality conditions, causing ambiguous risk situations, distrustful consumers and obstacles to international food trade.
4. The Conference focused in particular on opportunities for regional cooperation for the harmonization of food safety policies, scientific developments of relevance to improving food safety and quality, and the enhancement of information and communication systems for food safety and quality across the region.
5. The debate centred on the following technnical documents :
(i) Food Safety and Quality in Europe - Emerging issues and unresolved problems
(ii) Statistics on food-borne disease in Europe
(iii) System of food safety in Poland, present situation and prospects for change
(iv) Examples of comprehensive and integrated approach to risk analysis in the food chain - experiences and lessons learned
(v) Institutional and scientific cooperation, networking and capacity building in the field of food safety and quality
(vi) Rapid Alert System for food products in the European Union and its possible extension to other countries in the region
(vii) Information exchange and networking - an Emerging Risk Identification System (ERIS)
(viii) A mechanism for the exchange of official information on food safety, animaland plant health
(ix) Consumer information and participation - interactive communication with consumers on food safety risks and food quality
6. The principal conclusions, which emerged from the Conference, included the following:
(a) serious concern was expressed regarding the unsatisfactory state of food safety and quality in a number of countries within the region;
(b) specific food safety risks and the increasing number of incidences of some food-borne diseases were seen as major concerns having negative effects on consumer confidence and public health;
(c) insufficient transparency in existing food control systems, differences in food policies, legislation and standards between countries, and insufficient exchange of information and collaboration between countries and institutions were identified as main impediments;
(d) solutions to these problems were considered to be in the interest of consumers in European countries and to facilitate intra-European and international food trade.
7. The Conference recommendations placed particular emphasis on:
(a) cooperation between countries to reduce food safety risk and the incidence of food-borne disease;
(b) the harmonization of food safety and quality legislation, and control systems based on international standards;
(c) facilitating the involvement of stakeholders throughout the food chain in improved food safety and quality;
(d) joint efforts by governments, agencies and institutions and stakeholders, including consumers, to improve transparency and effectiveness of food production and food safety control systems and to improve communication with consumers and their organizations.
8. The Conference observed that much relevant food safety and quality expertise and experience already exists in European countries and regional and international organisations. Several European countries have indicated that their legislation and control systems, inherited from the past, should be restructured and strengthened to improve public health and conditions for international trade. It was generally agreed that these changes should be made according to international standards and agreements (especially Codex alimentarius, WTO, OIE, IPPC). Cooperation between European countries in the fields of research, information exchange, co-ordinated alert and response could be an effective mechanism to improve food safety and quality conditions throughout the whole region. Capacity building was considered a high priority for those countries having specific needs.
9. It was also observed that FAO, together with other concerned international agencies (in particular WHO and OIE), could facilitate the necessary reforms by initiating and coordinating technical assistance and capacity building programmes on :
(i) Identification of specific needs of interested Member countries in the field of food safety and quality development;
(ii) Support to establishment of a facility for food safety and quality improvement in the European region outside of the EU based on relevant international standards.
II. RECOMMENDATIONS STEMMING FROM THE PAN EUROPEAN CONFERENCE
10. The Secretariat herewith transmits the recommendations arising from the Pan European Conference to the 23rd FAO Regional Conference for Europe for consideration. The full report of the Pan European Conference is available (document: PEC/REP). These recommendations and the relevant report of the FAO Regional Conference will also be submitted to the 52nd Session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe (Denmark, September 2002).
A. MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS
A.1. Regional and national networks need to be improved and/or established for the collection, compilation and sharing of information and data on aspects of food quality and safety, food risks and contamination and foodborne diseases to improve comparability and equivalence of policies and to support harmonization. These networks should be linked, coordinated and open to all European countries.
A.2. Collaboration is required to strengthen and harmonize integrated and transparent systems for surveillance, outbreak investigation, reporting systems and diagnostic methods on food safety and quality.
A.3. Enhanced cooperation between the health, agriculture, fisheries and food production sectors is necessary for food safety surveillance and monitoring.
A.4. As improvements in public health and international trade of food products are often hindered by discrepancies between food safety and quality policies across Europe, there is a need to increase the compatibility of food safety and quality systems by implementing equivalence, transparency and harmonization of regulations and control across Europe.
A.5. Food safety strategies should be risk-based, giving priority to problems that pose the largest threats to health and to measures that have the potential to result in the greatest reductions in food-related diseases.
A.6. In order to avoid duplication and waste of resources, cooperation between national, regional and international experts and advisory bodies in the area of food safety should be intensified.
A.7. An integrated and multidisciplinary policy approach to food safety and quality should be applied with participation of all governmental and non-governmental stakeholders in the whole food chain, including primary production.
A.8. Prevention-oriented regulation and control systems for reduction of food-borne disease, reduction of food safety risks and protection of the environment should be developed and coordinated.
A.9. In policy making, consideration should be given to other legitimate factors in addition to risk assessment that are of concern to consumers, such as ethical and religious concerns and the desire to promote more sustainable food production practices.
A.10. In case of scientific uncertainty or where risk assessment is not conclusive, provisional risk management measures may be adopted based on the precautionary principle.
A.11. Cooperation on capacity building at the international and regional level should be improved and strengthened to build on national experiences and national food safety strategies, as well as to avoid duplication of work. The initiative under development by FAO, WHO and OIE, in collaboration with the World Bank and WTO related to capacity building in food safety, animal and plant health should be further developed.
A.12. To improve food safety, a clear attribution of responsibilities should be made at the national level, especially related to scientific advice, risk assessment, policy advice, policy making, risk management, regulation, control, enforcement and communication. An effective coordination system is needed.
A.13. With particular regard to scientific advice, risk assessment and risk communication, an independent, transparent and effective national food safety authority is recommended.
A.14. The need for effective and independent risk assessment was stressed. In cases where there are minority opinions, these should be mentioned in the risk assessment report and the degree of uncertainty equally addressed. Risk assessment should be carried out in an independent, open and transparent manner and should also address new or unforeseen risks.
A.15. In some cases, there might be advantages, including economical benefits, in giving a single agency responsibility for official food monitoring and control along the whole food chain. If, however, responsibility is divided between two or more agencies, there should be very close cooperation between them. Cooperation at the regional level should also be developed and enhanced.
A.16. Official control services involved in food safety systems must be provided with the necessary resources, both financial and human, for carrying out their missions.
A.17. Pan-European cooperation needs to be expanded in the fields of policy, research and education in view of the major differences in food safety and nutritional policies, in scientific knowledge and in the level of protection of consumers' health. As a basis for capacity building efforts in this area, European authorities and public and private research institutes should strengthen their cooperation and expand scientific activities, information networks and risk management strategies. Methodologies to anticipate and identify emerging risks at an early stage should be developed.
A.18. Improved education and training in food hygiene should be used to increase the competence of the workers and effectiveness of inspectors throughout the food chain. Education of consumers should begin at school. FAO, WHO, and regional bodies such as the European Commission, should encourage member states to inform consumers by assisting with education initiatives for all stakeholders in the food chain and public awareness campaigns.
A.19. Open consultation and public debate involving consumers and all other stakeholders is needed in order to increase the confidence of consumers in the safety of food and to develop a comprehensive, transparent and integrated approach to food safety and nutrition policy.
A.20. The Rapid Alert System for Foodstuffs, operational in the European Union, has proved to be a useful instrument to support public health, consumer protection and transparency in international food trade. Other European countries are encouraged to participate in this system considering the benefits and obligations linked to such participation.
A.21. Information on the results of all official monitoring tests and on the outcome of official food inspections and other official food control activities, should be made public as openness and transparency builds consumer confidence.
A.22. FAO and WHO should facilitate setting up regional programmes on food safety information and communication with standardized information. Such programmes should be developed in co-operation with consumers, industry and the relevant authorities.
A.23. The development of strong, independent consumer organizations should be encouraged as an essential element in public discourse. European countries should consider the adoption of new methodologies to gauge consumer perceptions and concerns. Interactive dialogue between scientists, risk managers, producers and consumers at all stages of the decision-making process is essential as a key to better mutual understanding of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.
A.24. FAO, WHO, EC and other European donor countries should explore the possibility of assisting with capacity building and education initiatives in those Pan-European countries with special needs.
B. OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS
B.1. The quantity, quality and timeliness of data collection and reporting at the national level and to the WHO Surveillance Programme for Control of Food-borne Diseases in Europe need to be improved. This may require the allocation of increased financial and human resources to achieve this goal.
B.2. Food microbiology data for risk assessment need to be collected to assist the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Risk Assessment of Microbiological Hazards in Food (JEMRA). National capacities to perform microbiological risk assessment, with particular regard to the use of the outcome of international risk assessments, as well as the methodology utilized, should be strengthened.
B.3. National capacities to perform risk assessments of chemicals in the food supply should be strengthened and unbiased monitoring and studies should be carried out to determine levels and trends of chemicals in food. Consideration should be given to the development across Europe of harmonized data reporting formats for chemical contaminants in food as the first step in developing consistent and comparable assessments for both health and standards-setting purposes, including Codex Alimentarius work. In this regard, the GEMS/Food data structure could be considered as the default if no other format is available.
B.4.Total diet studies should be conducted at the national level, to assess dietary exposures to toxic chemicals by the overall population, as well as by vulnerable groups such as children. The consumption part of such studies is expected to provide valuable information and will also be useful in microbiological risk assessment. Technical and financial assistance should be provided, where appropriate to facilitate total diet studies at the national or sub-regional level.
B.5. Decision-making processes and outcomes of scientific advisory bodies must be of the highest integrity: their procedures must be open, and transparent, to all stakeholders, including consumers and the organizations that represent them, particularly in respect to the selection and appointment of members, procedures and working practices, the question to be addressed and the factors to be taken into account in the decision-making process.
B.6. Endorsement should be given to the work of Codex Alimentarius as the generic instrument to promote harmonization of food safety and quality standards in the entire European region. Members should establish the Codex Contact Points, where necessary, and increase their participation in Codex Alimentarius work.
B.7. A comprehensive control of food safety and quality along the whole food chain, including internal checks of food and feed business operators, should be introduced.
B.8. The primary responsibility of food and feed business operators, within the limits of their own activities, for the safety of their products should be legally established.
B.9. Resources should be allocated to the identification and assessment of new or emerging risks associated with food. These could be due to new hazards or to increased exposure to previously identified hazards.
B.10. Experience with relevant and effective intervention strategies for risk management based on risk assessment should be collected, shared and communicated.
B.11. Multilateral and bilateral co-operation in the field of research, capacity building and education needs a secure financial basis to safeguard and promote continuous development and improvement in food safety throughout the Pan-European Region. European governments and international organizations should consider investment and financial support for regional cooperation in this field.
B.12. Cooperation initiatives for capacity building in education and information should concentrate, inter alia, on international standards and scientific research.
B.13 Regional networks of national risk assessment organizations should be strengthened or, if absent, be established.
B.14 European cooperation in food safety and nutrition research to cope with complex cross-border food safety and nutrition issues and to support policy improvement and harmonisation is important. The implementation of the food and nutrition action plans of FAO and WHO should be accelerated. An effective Pan-European science and research network to support and facilitate the process of policy development and to strengthen food safety and quality knowledge across the region is needed.
B.15. Consumer education on food safety and nutrition and information on food production methods and origin should be reinforced to contribute to increased consumer confidence in food products.
B.16. Communication at all levels between key stakeholders in the food chain is required with the objective of improving food and feed business operators’ understanding of hazards, implementation of preventive systems such as HACCP and sector-specific good practices and a better understanding of their contribution in reducing specific risks at critical points of the food chain. To achieve these objectives stakeholders should be included in information exchange mechanisms on rapid alerts and emerging issues.
B.17. Government reports and submissions on policy issues to public bodies should always be published promptly in such a way as to allow interested stakeholders to comment on them.
B.18 All countries should undertake an examination of commercial food safety and nutrition claims to ensure that consumers receive accurate information and are not mislead.
11. The Conference may consider endorsing the recommendations arising from the Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality (Section II of this document, ERC/02/4).
12. Based on the above recommendations, the Conference may wish to invite member countries in the European region to implement those recommendations which are amenable to individual country action. Such action should start from an identification of country-specific needs and aim to establish an efficient and transparent food safety and quality control system throughout the food chain, based on risk-orientated strategies, effective institutions, and broad awareness and involvement of stakeholders.
13. The Conference may wish, in particular, to underline the importance of collaboration among countries in the European region, aiming inter alia at increased compatibility of food safety and quality control systems in the region, Europe-wide surveillance, information exchange and effective response to food safety hazards. In this regard, the Conference may consider the establishment of appropriatiate mechanisms for the implementation of those recommendations that require intra-regional cooperation.
14. The Conference may wish to request that the FAO Secretariat, in collaboration with other international agencies concerned, in particular WHO, follow-up on the relevant recommendations with member countries in the region. Priority would be given to initiating programmes for assistance in capacity building in those Pan-European countries with special needs.