Food agencies urged to be vigilant

Thu, Oct 4, 2012, 01:00

Food safety and health regulatory agencies across Europe need to be continually alert to emerging health risks because of the free movement of foods across borders and the potential threat from food fraud, Food Safety Authority of Ireland chief executive Prof Alan Reilly has said.

He pointed to the ongoing case in the Czech Republic where alcoholic products were contaminated with methanol resulting in almost 30 deaths. “Trying to tell the difference between fake product and the real product is very, very difficult and we have to develop a system to do that,” he said.

Prof Reilly said counterfeit food was likely to become an increasing concern because of growing global demand for food resources and rising agricultural commodity prices. “Combating this form of criminal activity relies upon a high level of co-ordination among regulators and enforcement agencies supported by robust systems and controls across all member states.”

Prof Reilly was speaking at a conference in Dublin today, jointly hosted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to mark the European authority’s 10th anniversary.

Its director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle said if a lesson was to be drawn from the last ten 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

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness warned that the European Food Safety Authority would find it difficult to continue getting the best scientists to voluntarily sit on their expert panels 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, if you want the best experts,” 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. And what will we end up with?”

Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at UCD, spoke of “a huge disconnect” between consumers and modern agriculture and food production.

He said consumers had been encouraged to think that 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 medicines from India. “We are shopping in a global village,” he said.

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.