It’s a busy time for the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).
For last week, plus this week to date, there have been more than 75 notifications of serious health risk deriving from food or feed. They included more than 17 notifications relating to findings of the fipronil insecticide contaminant in eggs or egg products (and six relating to bacterially contaminated foods from Brazil).
The Dutch government says the fipronil egg scare, which spread to 18 European countries, will cost its poultry farmers at least €33 million. As a result, EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis will discuss with EU health ministers and national food safety agencies how to improve food safety EU alert systems.
EU law requires a member state to immediately notify the European Commission’s rapid alert system if it has any information on a serious risk to human health deriving from food or feed. Belgian authorities knew about fipronil early in June this year but did not notify the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) until late July.
Some EU authorities were alerted in early July, but were not co-ordinated with the RASFF, which didn’t have an alert until about three weeks later.
The Commission has been explaining how the RASFF is meant to function.
What is the RASFF?
>> Launched nearly four dec- ades ago, in 1979, the RASFF is primarily an IT tool designed to swiftly exchange information between national authorities on health risks related to food and feed. A member country of the network that identifies a health hazard informs the rest of the system’s network on the product concerned and the measures taken to address the risk. Measures include withholding, recalling, seizing or rejecting products.
This rapid exchange of information allows all RASFF members to check in real time whether they are also affected and if urgent action is needed. The authorities of affected countries have the responsibility to take the necessary emergency measures, including giving direct information to the public, withdrawing products from the market, and controls on the ground.
Who are the members of RASFF?
>> All EU Member States; EEA countries (Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland); the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA); and the European Commission, and Switzerland is a partial member as far as border rejections of product of animal origin are concerned.
How does the RASFF work in practice?
>> It starts with notification by a member of the existence of a serious risk to public health linked to food or feed. This information reaches the European Commission (as manager of the system), which in turn verifies the notification and immediately transmits it to the other members. Upon receiving the information, other member countries check if they are concerned. If the product is on their market, they are able to trace it, using the information in the notification.
They report back on what they have found and what measures they have taken, for transparent and mutual information of all RASFF members.
For products from the EU, the member state where the product originates reports on the outcome of its investigations with regard to the origin, distribution and cause of the problem identified. This allows other member countries to take rapid action if and when needed. In addition, the system allows member countries to request clarification as regards the timing, scope or nature of notifications. For instance if there is evidence that an incident could have been reported earlier, it is possible to ask the notifying country for an explanation.
What is predominantly notified in RASFF?
Around half of the notifications concern controls at the outer EEA borders, at points of entry or border inspection posts when a consignment was not accepted for import, or when a sample was taken for analysis at the border and the consignment was released.
Official controls on the internal market come next. Other notifications can arise from a consumer complaint, a company notifying the outcome of a check it carried out on its own account, or a food poisoning incident.
What action can the Commission take if a Member State of the EU fails to notify in a timely manner?
>> If a EU Member State does not notify in a timely manner, the Commission may launch an infringement procedure against that Member State for failure to comply with its obligations under EU law.