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Gourmet police - 17/07/2009

Tomatoes and courgettes for sale © EC

The EU’s food safety alert system picks up dangerous food products before they land on your plate.

They say the only thing worse than finding a worm in your apple is finding half a worm in your apple. But, while the presence of a worm in fruit is natural and might even prove that the apple was grown organically, other types of food contamination can be dangerous. Think dioxins, or melamine in baby foods from China.

To keep dangerous food and animal feed off the shelves, the EU has a rapid alert system for food and feed (RASFF), now 30 years old, enabling EU countries to exchange information on potentially dangerous products quickly and react immediately.

If problems are identified at an early stage and the information is passed on, products can be taken off the market, quickly, in the entire EU, or – even better – picked up before they go on sale. National authorities are also notified of any imported products refused entry to the EU on safety grounds.

Whereas the total number of warnings in 2008 was about the same as in 2007, at 7000, only 528 actual product-withdrawal calls had to be issued – half the figure for 2007 – suggesting that dangerous items are being spotted earlier, before they are put on sale. Some 62% of alerts were on products originating from within the EU. Pathogenic micro-organisms and mycotoxins was the most frequent cause for concern.

The alert system's 30th birthday was celebrated with a conference in Brussels on 16 July. Participants discussed possible improvements and examined ways of expanding it to other countries. The EU has already provided funding for the creation of an alert system in southeast Asia and has organised training seminars in other countries to help them set up national alert systems. The eventual aim is to merge all national and regional alert systems into a global network.

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