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Looking at the past, present and future of European food control


On 10 June, the FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia and the WHO Regional Office for Europe hosted a World Food Safety Day webinar about the past, present and future of food safety.

The event was moderated by Mary Kenny, Food Safety and Consumer Protection Officer, FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia and Peter Sousa Hoejskov, Technical Officer for Food Safety and Zoonotic Diseases, WHO Regional Office for Europe, and guests included Džemil Hajrić, Director, Food Safety Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Arykbaeva Bubuzhan Kamchybekovna, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Health of the Kyrgyz Republic, Milen Georgiev, Coordinator of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Emerging Risks Exchange Network and Paul Brereton, Director of Strategic Alliances, Queen’s University, Belfast, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Discussion looked at developments in food safety from a science and food control system perspective. The speakers shared experiences and updates on how food control has developed to become more science- and risk-based and highlighted issues related to food fraud and the prominent role that science plays in today’s food safety systems. All panellists stressed the importance of proper legislation, continuous development and use of science and information sharing as fundamental building blocks for increasing the trust in the safety and integrity of the food on our plates.

Brereton started by looking back at the incidents that marked the history of the understanding of food safety. He said that man has always had to address food safety issues, whether they were natural or  caused by man’s negligence, ignorance or dishonesty. This latter facet of food safety resulted in food fraud, and it has been an issue as early as the Roman times. However, he said no key changes in legislation occurred until the nineteenth century. A specific incident involving the adulteration of sugar with arsenic led to the deaths of a number of children in Great Britain and, subsequently, the emergence of public analysts and legislation. Other more recent cases include the horsemeat scandal in Europe, which was a consumer deceit rather than a food safety issue, and the melamine in milk scandal that had serious public health impact and created mistrust in the food safety system.

Georgiev explained that the BSE and dioxin crises were turning points in European food safety history, as they damaged consumer trust. EFSA was established to help inject trust back into European food safety systems. He said that one necessary aspect of this was that EFSA’s mandate involves risk assessment, which needs to be independent from the risk management process. He explained the importance of the close collaboration of  risk management, assessment and scientists to formulate the proper questions to answer without the pressure of expected outcomes of the analysis. He also called attention to the fact that the science and risk-based approach offers an objective evidence that can support decision making in risk management .

Hajrić described the process in Bosnia and Herzegovina to move from end product testing to proactive approaches in food control has started through the establishment of its Food Safety Agency and its food-related legislation in 2002. He noted that it has been a challenging switch, but now, the food businesses are responsible for the safety of their products, while the government is responsible for verifying that the businesses comply with the legal requirements for both domestically produced and imported products. Bosnia and Herzegovina prioritize the harmonization of national legislation with the EU hygiene package: “The best result of this,” he said, “is that Bosnia and Herzegovina now has access to the EU market for some of its dairy and meat products”. He also mentioned that the Agency prioritizes the training of food businesses on the new requirements, so that they continue to operate with compliance, and appreciated the support received form the FAO, WHO, EC and USAID on this journey.

Kamchybekovna described the processes the Kyrgyz Republic has been through to adopt risk-based models in the national food control system. Kyrgyz Republic is drawing on experiences from other countries to elaborate criteria for evaluating risk, for communicating with consumers and for training specialists in the country. The Kyrgyz Republic is finalizing the draft food law, which will align with international standards, including the technical requirements of the Eurasian Economic Union. She also highlighted the priorities of the Kyrgyz Republic on improving laboratory surveillance capacities to detect the pesticides, improve the implementation of GAP and HACPP in the country.

Every panellist cited networks and partnerships as the key tool for tackling future food safety issues. “Communication is important” said Brereton, explaining that we need intergovernmental networks so people know food fraud is a worldwide problem, and so that the problem can then be tackled collectively. Georgiev echoed this, saying that EFSA relies on horizon scanning to understand future issues,  and looking for ways on more efficient information sharing and communication with the usual professional networks and beyond. EFSA is currently working on a platform for exchange on emerging risk characterization. .

While the Kyrgyz Republic acknowledges the state’s responsibilities in limiting the possibilities for food fraud in countries, Kamchybekovna said that networking helps, as does reference to investigations in other countries. Hajrić agreed and brought into attention that online sales of food and  improving laboratories capacity. He  also noted  climate change as an important factor for the future of food safety and said that Bosnia and Herzegovina is actively looking at ways to “produce more food with lower carbon footprint and use alternative protein sources to save the planet”.