Fabian Demicoli

Bid to improve food-alert system, Changes planed after deadly E. coli outbreak

The European Commission is to simplify
the Europe-wide system of alerts to food health problems, but has stopped short
of proposing to centralise control of the alerts. Changes to the Rapid Alert System for
Food and Feed (RASFF) were almost inevitable after an outbreak of E. Coli in
May-July 2011 which killed 55 people and made more than 4,000 people sick.

The
outbreak was at its worst in northern Germany in May, but there was also a
significant cluster of cases in June 2011 in south-west France.

The Commission published on Friday (20
July) a review of the food alerts system, taking into account the E. coli
outbreak and the lessons learned.

Germany's health authorities submitted
data to the RASFF that misidentified Spanish cucumbers as the source of the
outbreak. The Commission was later accused of being too slow to correct this
erroneous information. It was only after the disease had spread further that
the source was eventually identified as a specific shipment of seeds for bean
sprouts from Egypt in 2010.

The Commission administers the RASFF,
but it does not independently verify the data submitted by member states during
the early stages of a health scare. The data submitted by national authorities
is distributed through the network to all other member states. The false alert
meant that Spanish vegetable producers suffered heavy losses, as their markets
collapsed, which were estimated at €810 million in the first two weeks. The
farmers were later partially compensated from the EU budget with €227m.

Moving online

Shortly after the E. coli outbreak, the
Commission decided to convert the RASFF system to an all-digital platform. Set
up in 1979, most alerts are currently entered and relayed using email. The new
iRASFF platform will allow national authorities to enter information online,
which should provide more information, faster. Member states will switch over
to the new system gradually, though the precise dates have not yet been set.

The Commission is revising rules on
traceability so that tracing back the origin of contaminated or suspect foods
is faster and more efficient. The Commission is also working with the European
Food Safety Authority to improve controls in the cultivation of fruit and
vegetables to guard against non-animal pathogens. Specific rules on the
production of seeds and sprouts are being developed.

The Commission is to provide specific
training for major trading partners such as Egypt on investigating food-borne
outbreaks and on managing outbreaks.

Some critics had hoped the Commission
would take a more central role in the RASFF. Under existing rules the
Commission can assume special powers such as suspending sales of food and
setting up a crisis unit for an EU-wide response during emergency situations.
But these powers have never been used.

It was an EFSA taskforce that belatedly
identified the source of the contamination as coming from Egypt. But this work
was not undertaken at an EU level until after the outbreak had already peaked.

There will be tighter co-ordination of
RASFF with the EU's Early Warning and Response System, but a Commission
official said that it was best at the early stages of a crisis to leave the
responsibilities for gathering and disseminating data to member states. "We will
strengthen our operating procedure so there are more certainties for the data
entered into the system," he said. "But the responsibility remains with the
national authority, which has to put into the system reliable data."

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