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Last update: 17/05/2002
   
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Food safety: tracking the food from the 'farm to the fork'

   
 
 

BSE, dioxin, listeriosis, pesticide residue, hormones, GMOs… What is it safe to eat nowadays? This question on the lips of many Europeans reflects their very real concerns and was highlighted on 15 March during World Consumer Rights Day when organisations active in the field of food safety highlighted the importance of better monitoring by producers, the public authorities and citizens. It seems things are now really starting to move…

   
   
 

The series of food crises of the past decade have plunged EU producers and consumers into a state of confusion, shaking people's confidence in the ability of the food industry and public authorities to guarantee the quality of their food. It is true that illnesses originating in food, such as salmonella and listeriosis, are on the increase in Europe. In addition, there are a number of chemical risks (dioxin, lead, cadmium) and risks linked to pesticide residue. Yet at the same time products are safer today than they have ever been - which is not to say that the system is perfect.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) set out the reasons for the paradox in their joint statement at the Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality in February 2002. Europe has a good system of detection, but the great diversity of European policies and regulations coupled with the evident lack of cooperation between the national authorities are weak links in the system.

   
 
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Graphic element Community initiatives

The European Community decided to act. In 1997, the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General assumed responsibility for all consultation on food safety. In January 2000 it published the White Paper on Food Safety proposing the creation of a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This was founded on 28 January 2002 in Brussels but will not be fully operational until the end of the year.

The founding principles of the EFSA are independence, scientific excellence and transparency and it is destined to be a major instrument of Europe's food safety policy. It has the status of an autonomous organisation, acting independently of the Community institutions and with substantial resources. It also has a broad remit to pursue a pro-active policy of scientific evaluations, advice, information gathering, risk identification and rapid alert in the event of a crisis when the public must be informed. It is responsible for anything which could have a direct or indirect effect on Food safety: tracking the food from the 'farm to the fork', such as animal health and welfare, GMOs for human or animal consumption, animal feeds labelling, nutrition, etc. The EFSA's main 'client' will be the Commission but it can also respond to scientific requests from the European Parliament and Member States and can undertake scientific investigations on its own initiative. Risk management, including legislation and testing, will remain the responsibility of the European institutions, although the EFSA may see its powers extended in this direction some time in the future.

The White Paper also outlines reforms designed to modernise the legislation, develop a coherent and transparent set of rules, tighten up controls 'from the farm to the fork', and increase the number of scientific opinions. All current legislation will be reviewed before 2007 to ensure compatibility with the new Community legislation on food safety which is currently being drawn up.

 
     
 
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Graphic element Consumer protection comes first

Within the European Research Area (ERA), the Union has also placed the emphasis on food safety and quality in the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP6), to be launched in November 2002. Under this programme, European financial support for research will concentrate on seven priority themes, including 'food quality and safety'. The aim is to guarantee healthy food for Europeans through increased understanding of the effects of food and environmental factors on human health and, ultimately, to provide the population with quality food which is safe and healthy. Consumer protection will be the fundamental motor for the development of new food production chains.

In the food field, the research priorities will be food-related diseases and allergies, the effect of food on health, traceability processes throughout the food production chain, methods of analysis, detection and control, the impact of animal feed on human health, and environmental risks to health.

Last but not least, a European food safety campaign has been launched (with an Internet platform) to boost the confidence of consumers. This will provide accurate information on the total food chain, from the stable to the table.

 
     
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Corn grown for animal feed in Belgium

Corn grown for animal feed in Belgium

 

Sources - Links:

Bullet image The European Commission (Food Safety)
Bullet image EFSA
Bullet image FAO
Bullet image Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality
Bullet image Consumers International
Bullet image CRIOC-OIVO
Bullet image Food Safety Platform (in french)
Bullet image European Food Information Council
Bullet image International Food Infor-mation Council Foundation
Bullet image RTD Info 29
Bullet image RTD Info 31
Bullet image Consumer Voice - January 2002
Bullet image Le Monde diplomatique (in french)