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Ladies and Gentlemen,

When most people think about dangerous contaminants in food, their immediate thoughts would most probably be of chemicals or heavy metals produced through industrial production processes – or mining activities.

Several food crises – such as, for example, the dioxin crisis in the early 2000s and very recently the Fipronil contamination of eggs –, attracted a great deal of media attention.

It also fed the perception that industrial and synthetic substances are the main contaminants, which threaten the safety of our food.

However, several of the most toxic food contaminants are of natural origin.

Next to possible microbiological contamination of food, also substances naturally occurring in plants and bacterial and fungal toxins, can constitute major risks to our health.

Through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), Member States notify the Commission and each other on food items for which they have identified a health risk.

The 2016 RASFF report revealed that:

  • 595 notifications were made in relation to bio-contaminants in food,

  • 639 notifications for microorganisms and parasites,

While, for non-natural substances:

  • Only 252 notifications were made for pesticides,

  • 41 for veterinary medicinal product residues, and

  • 150 notifications for heavy metals.

It is therefore clear that caution needs to be taken regarding the contamination of food with natural and microbiological contaminants.

Food should not contain a contaminant in an amount, which could cause a human health risk.

And contaminant levels need to be kept as low as reasonably achievable by following good practices.

This is why maximum levels (MLs) for contaminants in food are set in EU legislation.

The setting of these maximum levels is a continuous work in progress because new occurrence data or new scientific information, necessitate the setting of new maximum levels or the updating of existing ones. 

In particular the impact of climate change on the occurrence of mycotoxins in food requires special attention.

Mycotoxins are produced by toxigenic moulds as well during plant growth and during post-harvest storage of the crops.

As the moulds and mycotoxins are omnipresent in the environment, a complete prevention of their occurrence is not possible.

Therefore the combined focus is put on:

  • the identification of prevention measures,

  • on the determination of levels which could cause harm, and

  • on the setting of the appropriate maximum levels in order to ensure food safety.

The optimal conditions for mould growth and mycotoxin production are warm temperatures, humidity and conditions which impair the resistance of a plant, like for example drought or pest infections.

Climate change is causing increased temperatures in Europe.

In the more northern Member States, this results in higher agricultural production and the production of new crop types.

But because of increased yields and the occurrence of moist weather, an increased occurrence of mycotoxins is observed in the northern EU regions.

In the southern EU regions on the other hand, heat and water scarcities result in a decreased agricultural productivity.

However, as heat stress increases the susceptibility of plants to moulds, the relative occurrence of mycotoxins in crops also increases in southern Europe.

Preventive actions – such as: good agricultural practices; integrated pest management; the use of resistant varieties; or the appropriate cleaning, drying, storage and transport of crops – are important tools for limiting the occurrence of mycotoxins in food.

In view of the increasing prevalence of mycotoxins, the monitoring for mycotoxins in food should be expanded, and will enable the setting and amending of science-based maximum levels on the basis of occurrence data.

As mycotoxins mostly display a chronic toxicity and because the connection between cause and effect is difficult to substantiate, there may seem to be a less obvious urgency to invest in prevention.

Furthermore economic, environmental and/or agricultural constraints can complicate the fight against mycotoxins.

On the other hand there are sufficient incentives to implement good practices as they prevent yield reduction, harvests which are unfit for consumption, and most of all they are needed for the protection of animal and human health.

In general, awareness on the problem needs to be further raised combined with an integrated approach for dealing with mycotoxins.

Next to climate change, also new occurrence or scientific data necessitate the amending of maximum levels or the setting of new ones.

New toxicity data, indicating that known contaminants are more toxic than previously assumed, may necessitate the setting of new maximum levels like, for example, for toxins T-2 and HT-2 and for the metabolites of deoxynivalenol.

New occurrence data can also trigger the need for updating existing maximum levels.

For example, for the fungus Claviceps purpurea, a maximum level is currently set for the fungus itself on the basis of a microscopic examination.

New occurrence data on 12 ergot alkaloids enable the possible setting of new maximum levels for the sum of those toxins, which would enable control the food on the basis of the concentration of the toxins, and not only on the presence of the fungus.

Also for tropane alkaloids, new occurrence data revealed the necessity for the setting of new maximum levels for additional commodities.

Equally important as the setting and updating of the maximum levels are the controls performed by the Member States on the compliance of food on the EU market with such maximum levels.

Despite efforts to ensure a high level of food safety, it is mostly cases of food fraud that undermine the consumers' confidence in the toxicological safety of their food.

The very recent case of the contamination of eggs with fipronil resulted from the illegal use of this substance against red mites on laying hen farms.

And although fipronil is not directly within the scope of this presentation, the experiences and lessons learned are to a certain extent applicable to all food safety and control issues across the food chain.

Therefore, I would like to elaborate a little further on this recent contamination incident and on the lessons learned.

It is well established that the EU traceability system works very well and has allowed the rapid tracing and finding of relevant food products across the EU and beyond.

However, the Rapid Alert System for Food And Feed (RASSF) and the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system (AAC) require strengthened coordination, particularly at national level.

It has become clear that if a competent authority identifies a fraudulent practice, even if at that stage no health risk has been identified, it is important to alert other Member States to gain a picture on the extent of the fraud and on the related health risks.

To help ensure that no other illegal products are being used for the treatment of poultry against red mites, an ad hoc monitoring exercise has been set up among the EU Member States to get a comprehensive view on the contamination of eggs and poultry products due to illegal uses of acaricides.

In order to restore consumer confidence as quickly as possible, this programme is already running.

By the beginning of 2018, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will publish a report on the occurrence of fipronil and other substances in eggs and poultry meat.

This will give a view on the remaining fipronil contamination after the follow up actions and on possible contamination with other acaricides.

The recent fipronil incident has highlighted the importance of early detection of the possible use of illegal substances.

Currently work is ongoing for the modernisation of the monitoring of veterinary drug residues, thereby maintaining a high level of human health protection.

The introduction of risk criteria will make residue monitoring more effective and will allow greater flexibility to make adaptations at an early stage when the possible use of illegal substances has been identified.

In a Ministerial meeting organised by the Commission and held on 26 September, the Member States and the Commission agreed on a number of concrete measures which will reinforce the EU's action against food fraud.

These measures address the collective challenges posed by complex food supply chains, which require Member States – with support from the Commission – to maintain strong and efficient food fraud detection systems and procedures, and to communicate and cooperate at all levels.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

That brings me to the end of my presentation, which I very much hope you have found both useful and informative.

Thank you.