Food incident preparedness and response

Introduction

The EU has among the highest food and feed safety standards in the world to protect consumers, animals, plants and the environment. Despite this, food and feed safety incidents are reported every year when products or ingredients in food and feed have failed to meet these standards and may pose a health risk for consumers. Incidents like these are sometimes the result of food fraud, inadequate controls or simply accidents or natural events that are difficult to control.

There is a robust EU system in place to report, prepare for and respond to potential food/feed safety incidents. This system is coordinated at EU level by the European Commission in close cooperation with national authorities and with EFSA’s support.

Latest

The Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF – see below) ensures the reporting of and coordinated response to food and feed incidents in the EU. The 40th anniversary of the RASFF was celebrated by the European Commission and national food safety authorities at a Conference on ‘Smarter rules for safer food and plant health’, held in Brussels on 13 December.

Milestones

2019 EFSA updates its procedures for responding to urgent advice needs.

2019 The European Commission publishes the updated General Plan for Crisis Management in the food and feed safety area.

2019 EFSA’s scientists launch a new tool for the evaluation of risks to public health from chemical contaminants in food notified through RASFF.

2015 A new toolkit developed by EFSA with its Member State partners in the Communication Experts Network includes a best practice manual and checklists for crisis communication.

2013 EFSA initiates a new crisis preparedness multi-annual training strategy.

2011 EFSA determines the source of the E. coli O104:H4 outbreaks in Germany and France and follows this up with recommendations to protect consumers.

2009 EFSA’s first urgent request procedures are published.

2008 EFSA responds to Commission’s urgent request on dioxins in Irish pork.

2008 EFSA gives urgent advice on melamine in composite foods from China.

Role

EFSA plays a role in both preparedness and response in the event of a food or feed safety incident or crisis. Preparedness means developing, testing and maintaining urgent response structures, procedures and mechanisms to use in incident/crisis situations. Response comprises all the scientific and communications activities required during a food safety incident or crisis.

Preparedness

EFSA has developed procedures for responding to urgent advice requests that provide guidance on the identification of urgent situations, define response levels, explain how the urgent advice structures are activated, which steps must be followed, who the actors are and their tasks. These procedures are revised and if necessary, updated every two years reflecting the experience gained during urgent response management and training. At least one training exercise takes place every year involving simulation of incident/crisis conditions and the participation of European Commission, EFSA and national authorities.

Response

Most food safety incidents in the EU are handled at national level by local food safety authorities. EFSA may become involved if there is a multi-country incident or crisis and following a request from the European Commission or a national food safety authority.

The core activities provided by EFSA in the event of a multi-country incident or crisis are rapid risk assessments. An incident requiring a rapid response typically arises when the potential risk resulting from food and feed has caused or is likely to cause widespread concern to consumers, farmers or other stakeholders with a direct interest in the production, supply or use of food, and the exact nature of the risk is not immediately apparent or the impact is potentially large. Rapid response may also be required when an issue is linked to a high level of actual or potential media interest or public concern and when EFSA’s reputation may be at risk. Due to time constraints, the scientific assessment that EFSA provides in such cases does not always entail a full risk assessment.

During incidents or crises EFSA supports the coordination and management of ‘crisis communications’ with its partners in the European Commission and the EU Member States. EFSA’s Communication Expert Network developed procedures and tools for use during these situations.

EU framework

The Lisbon Treaty called on the European Commission to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of EU Member States in the area of protection and improvement of human health including combatting serious cross-border threats.

In 2002, the General Food Law – Regulation EC 178/2002 – established the EU food safety system and EFSA, while also creating the system for crisis management in the food and feed safety area. Article 50 of the Regulation refers to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and Articles 53 and 54 establish the procedures for emergency measures. Article 55 establishes the requirement for a General plan for Crisis Management, which was first implemented by the Commission through Decision 2004/478/EEC and recently updated by Decision EU 2019/300, taking account of experience gained in dealing with food incidents and crises in the intervening years. Also, Regulation EU 2017/625 sets out provisions for official controls in the event of a food crisis, including the drawing up of contingency plans at national level.

Urgent response

A food or feed safety incident at European level is treated as urgent if two or more of the following criteria are met:

  • The risk to public health is high (severe illness or death)
  • The scale of the incident is large or likely to become so (the number of products, countries or people affected is high)
  • The incident has occurred, or is believed to have occurred, as a result of an act of terrorism
  • There is a high, or potentially high, level of media interest or public concern (including perceived risks)
  • Vulnerable groups of the population, e.g. infants or the elderly, are or are likely to be disproportionately affected
  • The source of the problem is unknown or difficult to identify
  • The incident has a serious potential impact on the functioning of the internal market
  • There is disagreement on actions between Member States
  • There is an institutional reputation risk.

Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF)

The RASFF - the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed – is a key tool to ensure the flow of information and enable swift reaction when risks to public health are detected in the food chain.

Created in 1979, RASFF enables information to be shared efficiently between its members – EU Member State national food safety authorities, Commission, EFSA, ESA (the EFTA Surveillance Authority), Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland. It provides a round-the-clock service to ensure that urgent notifications are sent, received and responded to collectively and efficiently. Thanks to RASFF, many food safety risks had been averted before they could have been harmful to European consumers.

Vital information exchanged through RASFF can lead to products being recalled from the market. A robust system, which has matured over the years, RASFF continues to show its value to ensure food safety in the EU and beyond.