Counterfeit food poses health risks, warns regulator
THE HEALTH risks posed by food fraud and counterfeit food were highlighted by Food Safety Authority chief executive Alan Reilly at a conference yesterday.
These fraudulent practices involve imitating popular products in the same way as people produce fake designer watches, using cheaper ingredients and illegal ones.
“Trying to tell the difference between a fake product and the real product is very, very difficult and we have to develop a system to do that,” Prof Reilly said.
He said the technology needed to detect a piece of illegal meat in a meat product was “extremely complex”. The Czech Republic authorities are still dealing with the fallout from the contamination of alcohol products with methanol that resulted in nearly 30 deaths.
“The fakes were very, very good,” he said. “If someone was to do that with, say, Kerrygold [butter], would we have the systems in place to actually detect it?”
Prof Reilly said the European regulatory agencies must be continually alert to these emerging health risks because of the free movement of food across borders.
He was speaking at a conference in Dublin hosted jointly by the Food Safety Authority and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to mark the European authority’s 10th anniversary.
Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at UCD, spoke of “a huge disconnect” between consumers and modern farming and food production. Consumers had been encouraged to think there was a straight line between farm and fork, “but it’s more like a maze”.
While an animal may be produced locally, the soya bean feed could come from China, the fertiliser from north Africa and the medicine from India.
One ham sandwich could contain the trimmings of meat from three continents. “People have unrealistic expectations. They think there should be no risk in their food,” he said, but everything came with a risk.
EFSA director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle said if a lesson was to be drawn from the last 10 years it was that EU food safety policy must continue to be underpinned by the highest standards of scientific evidence.
“By working together we can build a European risk assessment community whose top priority is to protect consumers, which will strengthen confidence and trust in our work among all our stakeholders, as well as with our trading partners,” she said.
MEP Maireád McGuinness warned that the EFSA would find it difficult to continue to get the best scientists to sit on their expert panels voluntarily, because of the tendency of critics to focus on their involvement with industry.
“In Europe, where science is often funded by industry, it’s very hard to find people who are totally independent,” she said.
“There is a fear factor building into this where people who are expert but might have worked for a company in the past, or currently do, just decide it is not worth being on a panel because of some of the burdens it puts on their shoulders.”
EU Food and Veterinary Office director Michael Scannell said there was a danger bodies working on food safety would be unfairly hit by EU budget cuts because they had been so effective.
“The money and the resources go where the problems are. We’ve fixed an awful lot of the problems,” he said.