Archive for July, 2010

How safe is our food?


How safe is the food that we eat? Is the EU responsible when contaminations slip through the net?

Italy is still reeling from the sight of ‘blue mozzarella’ after consignments of the contaminated cheese made their way from a German factory onto Italian supermarket shelves. This was not the first food scare of its type, and not even the first involving mozzarella: the Italian ‘buffalo’ version was mired in controversy when high dioxin levels were unearthed in 2008.

These type of food controversies tend to rekindle latent scepticism about the global food supply, sparking intense media coverage, consumer boycotts, and a general loss of trust in the ability of public authorities to shield us from food impurities.

While the necessary questions are now being asked about the hygiene precautions in German cheese factories, the latest Mozzarella scandal also raises questions about our legitimate expectations on food safety.

Modern European society expects safe food, and is outraged at any reported contamination scare. Meanwhile we draw on a huge and diverse food supply which we are increasingly disengaged from. Short of the odd farmers’ market, most Europeans shop primarily in supermarkets, where the food on offer is increasingly varied, unseasonal, and diverse in its origin. Between 1999 and 2008 EU food imports increased by around 25 million tonnes, bringing in new products from new destinations with new hygiene challenges.

Last month journalists accompanied Health Commissioner John Dalli to experience first-hand the food safety checks carried out on lettuces arriving at a Belgian fruit and vegetable auction, and on South American bananas being shipped into the Antwerp port. Afterwards Dalli was able to say: “What I have seen today fully reassures me that the fruit and vegetables that reach our tables are safe.”

Evidently a statement to this effect is a must from the Health Commissioner. But it reveals the large discrepancy between what is expected and what is feasible: how sure can he or anyone else be about the integrity of the tonnes of food stacked on supermarket shelves, comprising hundreds of ingredients, all subject to multiple points of potential contamination through the food chain, from pesticides sprayed in the field to components of animal feed to water-borne bacteria in the factory.

The spread of pathogens and contaminants occurs all the time, through multiple vehicles. The difference with food-based contamination is that there is no margin for error – impurities are directly ingested into the body.

Border checks: a limited solution

Ultimately, public authorities cannot check that every batch of domestic produce and every container of imported goods are pathogen and toxin free (or at least below legal trace amounts). Instead they have to work on the basis of random checks guided by continuously updated risk data.

Currently the EU operates 100% document checks on a handful of recurrently troublesome imports such as Argentine ground nuts, Turkish pears and Thai aubergines, soon to be joined by Chinese noodles and Peruvian chillis. Even in these cases, only a handful of food consignments are actually subject to lab tests for pesticide residues or toxin presence. As is the nature of a risk-based system, the border checks are focused around past cases of contamination, arising in particular products of a given origin. Hence the huge scope for novel and unexpected sources of contamination to slip through the net.

When it comes to domestic produce the role of food safety controls is also limited. Fruit and veg auction houses provide a common collection point for large amounts of regional produce, but even here it is difficult to catch every contamination, not to mention the challenges of doing so when smaller supply chains are involved.

Alerts play pivotal role

Luckily, modern food safety systems do not rely solely on random checks. The EU food safety model is in fact focused on responding quickly when contamination does – inevitably – slip through the net. The Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) provides a database for alerting the European community once a food scare is located at a given point in the chain, allowing national authorities or retailers to take actions such as withholding, recalling, seizing or rejecting products in line with the notification. The system is in constant use, and in the 2005-2008 period received around 7000 notifications (including follow-ups) per year on measures taken to restrict produce suspected of contamination.

Hence the importance of ‘traceability’ requirements: the extensive coded information obligatory on food labels is used in order to trace a contamination incident back from fork to farm, and back out again to all retail outlets stocking food from the same source.

Does the system work? The fact that so many alerts are received by RASFF, and so few cases turn into fully-fledged food scares, suggests that it does. The infamous blue mozzarella only made it to a handful of consumers, despite the fact that the German factory was late to notify the contamination.

How does the EU measure up globally?

Nonetheless, when contaminated foodstuffs do slip through the net and all the way to consumers, major consequences can ensue, and public feeling is legitimately strong.

In 2008 there were 45,622 human cases of foodborne illness in the EU, resulting in 6,230 hospitalisations and 32 deaths, according to the EU’s food safety watchdog. More than one third of cases were caused by salmonella alone, with eggs (23%) and pigmeat products (10%) the foodstuffs most likely to transmit a foodborne illness.

The data suggests that major food safety gaps still remain. However, a comparison with other countries shows the EU situation in better light; according to estimates from the American Centre for Disease Control, foodborne diseases are responsible for some 325,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths in the US each year, with known pathogens such as salmonella and listeria causing 1,500 deaths alone.

Comparisons are obviously limited, given the differences in data collection practices between EU member states, let alone between Europe and the United States.

Nonetheless, the figures do suggest that European worries about food scares may be disproportionate to the actual impacts.

Consumer groups are often the first to lambast food hygiene failures, but even here the EU’s efforts appear to have garnered broad satisfaction: at a Brussels conference on CAP reform this week, Monique Goyens, Director General of European Consumers’ Organisation, acknowledged that, despite various gripes, the EU is still the “safest place in the world for food”.

The EU has in fact gone far beyond traceability systems in its efforts to keep food safe and healthy. Brussels has gone out on a limb – incurring the wrath of the US and others – by banning beef hormones and chlorine-washed chickens, as well as restricting pesticide use to a greater extent than its rivals. The relatively positive food safety record in recent years may be taken by many as vindication of the precautionary approach.

Why are we afraid of food?

Where then does the perception of unsafe food come from? It may relate to the fact that the European media, reflecting the interests of a food-centric society, covers each scare with avid interest.

In 2008 mass coverage was given to the Chinese melamine scandal, after it emerged that the industrial chemical had been added to watered-down milk, sparking kidney failure and caused the deaths of six Chinese babies. International outrage ensued, and precautionary bans were imposed on Chinese dairy products by many including the EU.

No EU consumers were directly affected by the melamine scare; nonetheless the case is likely to have fed into European scepticism about the safety of our food supply, coming as it did in China, one of the EU’s biggest trading partners, and at a time when the food supply chain is becoming increasingly global.

The EU complex about food safety may also relate to the bloc’s chequered history with animal disease. The mass controversy surrounding BSE remains close to mind. When the latest outbreaks occur there are perhaps automatic associations with the food supply, even though animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease and swine flu cannot be transmitted to humans by eating meat.

Evidently there is still plenty to do, and there is little to be gained from EU policymakers sitting on their laurels and congratulating themselves about the superiority of the ‘European food model’. Nonetheless, if current successes can be built upon and major crises averted, EU consumers may eventually drop their suspicions in regard to the food supply, and Brussels may even be credited with a major success.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti

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