The EU's food safety early warning network cemented its vital role in keeping dangerous food products off the shelves in 2013, and aims to lead the fight against fraud.
Last year, the EU's Rapid Alert System for Food & Feed (RASFF) was alerted to 3,205 new cases of health hazards in food products, its annual report shows. These notifications included strawberries infected with hepatitis A and meat containing the highly dangerous E.coli.
The RASFF network connects all 28 EU countries as well as several countries outside the bloc, allowing members to share information on potential health hazards found in food and feed – and then coordinate an immediate response.
Timely identification means products can be taken off the market, or recalled from consumers. Some are even stopped before they reach the shelves – for example products from outside the EU that are refused as unsafe at its external borders.
35 years of protection
The vast majority of all cases flagged concern food for human consumption (85% of cases in 2013), followed by animal feed (8%) and 7% for packaging, machines, etc. that come into contact with food (food contact materials).
Previously used primarily by regulators and authorities, a new consumer website has been launched to give access to a searchable database of the latest public health warnings received by RAFSS.
According to the 2013 report, notifications were down 9% on 2012, with a decline in border rejections and information-only messages. This suggests regulators are working more efficiently, concentrating on serious cases requiring rapid action.
Fighting food fraud
The horsemeat scandal which rocked Europe early in 2013 underscored the importance of the network – information acquired on meat adulterated with horsemeat was hailed as pivotal in bolstering investigations and tracing the source of the fraud.
The scandal nevertheless brought to light how difficult it is to trace food fraud in an age of complex global supply chains. The current early warning system already receives crucial clues for tracing back products from follow-up notifications on reported cases.
A new EU-wide online food fraud tool is currently being created, to coordinate cross-border fraud prevention efforts and data sharing. This will complement the work of the newly createdand takes its inspiration from RAFSS's successful information sharing model.