This report presents EFSA activities related to food and feed safety crisis preparedness and urgentr esponses. In 2011, one training exercise, in collaboration with the European Commission, Member States and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control was organised to raise awareness amongst EFSA response personnel of the principles of crisis response in the context of urgent risk assessment. In the same period, EFSA received one urgent request from the European Commission regarding an unusually large outbreak of Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli serotype O104:H4 in France and Germany. The response to the urgent request included careful consumer advice about risk mitigation and prevention and was delivered as public notices and EFSA statements online within statutory timeframes.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established procedures for responding to urgent requests for scientific advice, and carries out crisis preparedness training on a regular basis. During 2011 EFSA carried out one training exercise and issued, upon its own remit and at the request of the European Commission, several consumer advice statements and reports on the E. coli (STEC) O104:H4 epidemic in Germany and France.
In order to prepare for food and feed safety crises, EFSA has developed and implemented a multiannual crisis preparedness training programme to improve EFSA crisis preparedness and to develop an effective coordination framework for internal and external cooperation with EFSA units and stakeholders.
The training event involved EFSA staff with the collaboration of participants from the European Commission, Member States and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The format of the day consisted of an exercise involving a developing situation that occurred as a result of a fictitious pathogenic bacterial strain that resulted from the acquisition of new virulence determinants from other unrelated bacteria, and that contaminated feed and food in the European Union.
The general aim of this training event was to raise awareness amongst EFSA response personnel of the principles of crisis response in cases of urgent risk assessment, and the activities required to support EFSA’s response to a request for urgent advice. The specific aims of the exercise were to enable the EFSA to rehearse its information management, exchange procedures with MSs and log keeping.
Based on the feedback from the debriefing of participants and the contractor’s evaluation, it was considered that the training event achieved its aim of raising awareness amongst EFSA response personnel and that participants had a good awareness of the EFSA procedures for responding to urgent advice needs and understood satisfactorily their role and that of other EFSA units as part of the response. The main recommendations made after the exercise with regards to future exercises were in the areas of information management and exchange, procedures, communications, and training.
The training exercise was found to be very relevant for EFSA preparedness, as a similar type of event, an outbreak due to a rare strain of food poisoning bacteria, was sadly mirrored by reality when an outbreak of shiga toxin-producing E. coli O104 in Germany and France resulted in almost 4.000 cases, including 800 cases of renal impairment and 53 deaths.
Through the training exercises, familiarity with the urgent response procedures enabled a rapid response on the half of EFSA to what proved to be one of the largest foodborne outbreaks in Europe in recent years. Having a Unit dedicated to providing organisational support during a crisis was critical. In the initial stage of the outbreak, EFSA rapidly produced two reports with supporting information, concerning the public health risk of STEC in fresh vegetables and, jointly with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), a report on STEC in humans, food and animals. A rapid risk assessment was also carried out jointly with ECDC. As the magnitude of the outbreak became evident, on the request of the German authorities and the European Commission, ESFA scientific staff with expertise in data collection, and epidemiological analysis including foodborne outbreaks, were dispatched to Germany to assist in the outbreak investigation.
Following the outbreaks in France, EFSA was asked by the European Commission to support the Member States and coordinate activities to trace the common source of contaminated produce implicated in the outbreaks to allow risk managers to make more informed mitigation and prevention management decisions.
A Task Force was set up by EFSA to provide immediate scientific assistance. EFSA scientists were joined on the Task Force by officials and experts from the European Commission, relevant EU Member States, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
EFSA’s scientific output during the STEC outbreak included in total, six scientific reports and statements, with further follow-up activities instigated on the request of the Commission, following the end of the outbreak.
This important pan-European outbreak also highlighted the importance of EFSA’s risk communications mandate, and the need to coordinate communication between risk managers and risk assessors. This is reflected in the increased number of media enquiries and visitors to the Authority’s website for the period end May to early July 2011.
In the light of the experience gained in 2011, the procedures for responding to urgent requests for advice are being further developed based on the on the internal evaluation of the crisis response to E. coli, captured in the annex of this report on lessons learnt.
Also during the same period, the Emerging Risks Unit carried out monitoring of a number of high profile chemical and biological issues considered of interest by EFSA to ensure timely preparation in the eventuality of EFSA being request to provide an urgent request.