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INTERVIEW: Moldova takes further steps to ensure food is safe

People everywhere want their food to be safe – free of harmful toxins, viruses, bacteria, veterinary drugs, or excess additives. For this reason, national authorities in Moldova have been working with FAO to modernize their country’s food safety system.

Improvements achieved under a two-year FAO-financed food safety project in Moldova will benefit consumers, policy makers, competent national authorities, producers, processors and food service businesses. They should both protect the domestic food market and enhance Moldova’s ability to export foods to key markets abroad.

Eleonora Dupouy, food safety and nutrition officer with FAO’s Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, spoke recently about the effort to upgrade Moldova’s food safety system.

What are some examples of food safety hazards?

Salmonella and campylobacter are two well-known bacteria – commonly found in raw meat, poultry and eggs – that can make people very ill.

What is less well known is the fact that these bacteria are changing, as a result of changes in climate, technology, and the food supply chain. We now see salmonella spreading to foods of plant origin, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and to other foods never before associated with salmonella, like chocolate, peanut butter and potato chips.

Other food-borne pathogens – Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium botulinum, pathogenic Escherichia Coli – can be fatal if present in food.

Danger may also come from chemical hazards – contaminants such as mycotoxins, heavy metals, residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs.

Food additives meant to prolong shelf life or improve technological properties – if used above acceptable levels – can also present a danger. Chemical food safety hazards may also be generated during food processing.

What is the role of a national food safety system?

The role of a national food safety system is to maintain continuous monitoring and surveillance of possible food safety hazards in the food supply chain, using the latest science-based detection methods and technology. Food safety risk mitigation measures include as a compulsory preventive step the application of good practices – agricultural, veterinary, manufacturing, hygiene – and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points)- based principles along the entire food chain from farm to consumer. It should also work to raise awareness and improve the capacity to prevent food safety incidents.

What is at the cutting edge of food safety today?

Risk analysis and risk-based inspections, foresight and intelligence in the food chain, proactive action for early warning, preparedness and adequate response to food safety threats together with inter-sectoral coordination and collaboration are the areas that an efficient food safety system has to master. These rely essentially on a strategic spot-check approach with observation, information and data being collected, analyzed and interpreted to identify food safety issues wherever there is a likelihood of hazards occurring or emerging. On this basis, appropriate responses can be determined. Some of these areas are covered by the project in Moldova.

What can Finland and Ireland teach us?

We organized two study visits – to the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira and to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland – for staff of Moldova’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry, Food Safety Agency and national food safety experts. Here are two countries whose food safety monitoring and control systems are both efficient and highly effective. Observing their operations first-hand was extremely valuable in helping Moldova visualize its own objectives.

It is essential that monitoring and control take place all along the food chain, and that data collected along the food chain is analyzed together with data from public health surveillance. But equally important is that the food control authorities assume and perform new functions for increasing compliance. Examples of this would be: issuing explanatory briefs on new food safety legislation, providing consultations and training for food business operators, and raising consumer knowledge of how to properly handle food in the home in order to prevent food poisoning.

What has the project in Moldova accomplished?

Safety of food is a longstanding area of FAO work and expertise, due to its relevance for food security, nutrition, food losses and waste, economic growth, environmental impact, and responsible use of natural resources. Therefore countries are keen to have the support from FAO to strengthen their food control systems at various levels – systemic, institutional, enterprise and individual.

Moldova’s food safety agency was established in 2013 as a single food safety control authority along the entire food chain. Along with the Ministry of Agriculture – the main policy maker – this young institution was the project’s main beneficiary. With them, we have worked on better understanding and consistent application of the risk analysis framework for surveillance and inspection, developing policy and regulations, and strengthening the national Codex Alimentarius structures.

One very important product of the project is a comprehensive assessment of the national food control system, following internationally accepted codes and standards, and applying performance criteria developed by FAO in collaboration with the World Health Organization, WHO. A national food safety emergency response plan, and regulations to strengthen the food recall system are under preparation.

Analysis of data collected for the assessment is now under way, and in the coming weeks we should see a preliminary report indicating priority areas that would need to be strengthened as an immediate next step.

We helped with producing two national guides to help convey food safety requirements and good practices to small-scale producers of milk and to food service operators – two food sub-sectors identified at the outset as priority target groups.

Still to come are training courses for veterinary and food safety control inspectors. The slaughterhouses are very important points in the food chain to monitor, as this is where animal health translates into safe food.
The project assisted as well with food safety legal framework, reducing the gap toward nationally established objectives.

What else can be done to ensure that food is safe?

The informal food market is an unresolved problem in all of the post-Soviet countries. To earn a living, many people produce food in their homes and sell it in unauthorized places – on the street, at bus stations, in underground passageways, and so on. This activity is usually forbidden, but it needs to be addressed in a way that preserves people’s livelihoods while ensuring that the food is safe. These informal food producers could organize into associations and become part of the national food safety control system. Countries need guidance and support for this.

6 February 2017, Budapest, Hungary

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