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Examining fish for parasites is part of risk assessment
Examining fish for parasites is part of risk assessment
FAO/20618/P.Lowrey

Background

The emerging world trading system is committed to transparent rules relating to food safety and quality based on the principle of equivalence and a scientific approach. This is particularly important for fish and fishery products, which today are more internationally traded than any other food product.

Whereas the concept of risk and food safety has been around for some time, it was the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which came into effect in 1995 and set the stage for a risk approach to food control measures. It states that safety and quality rules should, where possible, reflect international standards, such as those of the Codex Alimentarius, but different national standards can be applied as long as they are scientifically based using risk assessment.

The risk approach to food safety embraces the fact that whereas carefully designed preventive systems, such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), can produce safe foods, complete safety cannot always be guaranteed at all times for all people. Therefore, communicating the risk associated with consumption of different foods becomes of prime importance.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) has identified microbiological risk assessment for foods as a priority. Subsequently, the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene (CCFH) has identified 21 pathogen-product pairs for which it requires expert advice based on risk assessment. Of particular relevance for fishery products are risk assessments for Vibrio spp. in seafoods and Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods - both of which are now near completion.

The use of risk assessment gaining ground

The use of risk assessment has gained steadily in importance and recognition as the scientifically-based approach for the development of food safety and quality standards. During recent years there has been increasing use of the word 'risk' in connection with food safety, in general, and seafood safety in particular. There are statements such as "regulations must be risk-based", "a risk analysis must be done" and "we need to communicate the risk to all stakeholders."

Where has this emphasis on risk come from? Probably it is a logical extension of the HACCP revolution that swept the industry in the 1980s and 1990s. HACCP Principle 1 states that a hazard analysis must be done. First those hazards that are likely to occur are identified, then an assessment is made of the severity of each hazard, followed by an evaluation of its likelihood to occur. These two factors (severity and likelihood) tell us about risk.

Fish processing plants, such as this one in Latvia, must follow safety and quality regulations
Fish processing plants, such as this one in Latvia, must follow safety and quality regulations
Courtesy of EUROFISH

Another important drive towards risk assessment is the increase in international trade, which has raised new safety and quality challenges. Newer proactive quality and safety approaches have been developed to address the risk of cross-border transmission of infectious and hazardous agents and to deal with emerging food-borne diseases and quality problems. This has required the development of a new safety and quality regulatory framework that culminated with the entry into force, in 1995, of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) and the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Two provisions of these Agreements are of paramount importance to fish safety and quality:

  • national SPS and quality requirements should reflect standards agreed on in the international standards setting bodies i.e. Codex Alimentarius for food quality and safety; and, 
  • domestic standards, different from international ones, can be developed given they are scientifically based using risk assessment.

A priority for the whole seafood industry

Risk assessment of microbiological hazards in foods has been identified as a priority area by the CAC. At its thirty-second session in 1999, the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene (CCFH) identified a list of 21 pathogen-commodity combinations that require expert risk assessment advice. In response, FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly launched a programme of work with the objective of providing expert advice on risk assessment of microbiological hazards in foods to their member countries and to the CAC. This involved establishing expert drafting groups to examine four priority pathogen:product pairings:

  • Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat food;
  • Salmonella in eggs and broiler chickens;
  • Campylobacter spp. in broiler chickens;
  • Vibrio spp. in seafoods.

In view of all this, risk assessment is important throughout all aspects of the seafood industry -- for companies, national governments and for international regulators. It does not matter where you operate in the seafood industry, risk assessment either already is an important part of your activity, or it soon will be. It can also be an expensive exercise, but in the end it should be worth the resources mobilized.

 
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