EU food under constant threat from infectious agents

Globalisation and mass migration increase risk of diseases being carried via food chain

Bernhard Url, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority: “Diseases affecting animals, humans and plants are spreading because of climate change.” Photograph: Pier Luigi Vasini

Bernhard Url, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority: “Diseases affecting animals, humans and plants are spreading because of climate change.” Photograph: Pier Luigi Vasini

 

European food production is under constant threat from pathogens able to cross frontiers, and the health of EU citizens is also at risk from food-borne infectious agents.

Globalisation, the current mass migration of people fleeing conflict, and climate change are all drivers for the transfer of plant, animal and human diseases via the food chain, said Bernhard Url, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority.

“Diseases affecting animals, humans and plants are spreading because of climate change,” he said. And as globalisation increases “you also have the globalisation of hazards”.

Dr Url is in Dublin this week to attend a series of meetings with Irish members of 40 different EU agencies. He also had talks on Tuesday with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

He told The Irish Times about the startling range of threats that have the capacity to disrupt food production, transfer disease and affect human and animal health. He also described how the EU deals with these threats via the European Food Safety Authority.

Some of these threats are unexpected but must still be examined, for example the transfer of the deadly Ebola virus via the food chain.

Traditional “bush meat”from regions affected by Ebola is being smuggled into Europe and this could result in an infected person able to spread the disease to others, said Marta Hugas, the authority’s head of the department of risk assessment.

The authority found this risk to be low but with a high degree of uncertainty, she said.

A much greater risk is posed by the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa, Dr Url said. The bacterium carried by insects kills olive trees and appeared in the Puglia region in 2013 and since then in Corsica and along the French coast near Nice.

This got a much tougher risk assessment because of the threat it poses to European agriculture, he said. “The big question is will this affect vine and citrus fruits.”

African swine fever

Yet another threat, African swine fever, is a disease of pigs that has already spread through the Baltic states. It is difficult to eradicate and only mass slaughter seems to clear it, Dr Url said.

Unfortunately it has got off the farm and out and into the wild boar population, and is in danger of spreading into Finland, Poland and Germany, he said. It has no impact on humans “but for pig production it is devastating”.

The authority is also asked by the European Commission to looks at emerging food sources such as the use of insects including house flies, meal worms, crickets and silkworms as a human and animal foodstuff.

The authority’s initial assessment held “it is as safe as other protein production processes provided it is a properly designed and controlled production system”.

The failure of Europe to deal effectively with BSE encouraged a new division of labour in 2002 in terms of food safety. Risk management, the political and governmental response to risks, was decoupled from risk assessment, the scientific interpretation of risk.

“The authority is the European authority for scientific advice on the whole food chain,” Dr Url said. It delivers the scientific assessment that informs what the risk managers do.