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Food for Thought

Many Europeans are scared of their food. Their confidence has been shattered by mad cow disease and various microbial horrors. A meeting in Hungary is aiming to improve food safety and raise consumer confidence.

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Are these cows safe for consumption?

The incidence of food contamination is of increasing concern in Europe. And it should be. Recent scares, like the antibiotic chloramphenicol in animal feed, have led to a disquiet among consumers.

And how many people can really enjoy their steak or pork chops when they remember mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease contamination?

Food safety and quality need to be improved in all European countries, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Foodborne diseases have increased considerably in the region in the past decade.

Representatives of governments, industry and consumer organizations from 43 countries from western, central and eastern Europe and other countries in transition are meeting in Budapest, Hungary this week for the First Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality.

They are discussing food safety and quality threats, foodborne diseases, the expansion of a Rapid Alert System outside the EU and better communication with the consumer.

Harmful food is on the rise

Better monitoring systems were revealing more and more cases of foodborne illnesses, says Hartwig de Haen, FAO Assistant Director-General. "The number of people suffering from foodborne diseases or even dying from them is still far too high."

Diseases particularly increasing are those from microbiological hazards, such as salmonella and campylobacter. Foods contaminated by chemical hazards, such as dioxin, lead and cadmium, are also becoming more common.

WHO estimates that, worldwide, thousands of millions of cases of foodborne disease occur every year. As many as one person in three in industrialized countries may be affected by foodborne illness each year.

"The consumer has the right to safe food in all European countries," says de Haen. "Food safety ‘from farm to fork’ needs to be ensured throughout the region."

Food safety should begin with good agricultural practices, with control strategies for all the processing stages at which contamination could occur. This would also save costs and prevent contamination.

Regulations too diverse in Europe

A central problem is that national policies and regulations on food safety and quality are still very heterogeneous in Europe, says de Haen. "Food safety control systems in central and eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asian Republics are very different from the EU, and also vary among each other."

The European Commission and EU member states have regulations to protect consumers. But they differ from those of accession countries preparing to join the EU and nations further east. EU regulations are not intended to become a trade barrier. "Safe food is important, but blocking imports could trap rural communities in eastern Europe in poverty," says the FAO.

Eighty-five percent of the food trade in Europe is within the EU. Opportunities for eastern European countries are limited partly by the EU's different food safety standards.

The European Commission supports the conference in Budapest and wants to remove barriers to trade, says the FAO. But some are more difficult to remove than others. For example, slaughterhouses exporting to the EU must comply with very strict standards, not least because of mad cow disease.

Food safety is also a food security issue. In the EU, if all the eggs from a certain location are found to be contaminated, people can get their eggs from somewhere else. In poorer countries in the East, people don't have this option, and many really might go hungry.

The FAO and WHO recommend that all countries have science-based risk assessment and management systems in place to deal with microbiological and chemical hazards in food. In some countries, infrastructure needs to be strengthened to achieve a higher level of protection.

"Agriculture and health institutions must work together to ensure food safety," de Haen says.

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