EU health commissioner David Byrne has expressed his confidence in the food chain as a contamination scare highlights the value of traceability and the progress made in reducing risks to the complex food production industry.
Since the European Commission discovered dioxin-contaminated potato by-products in the Netherlands, the Brussels-based legislative body has co-ordinated the tracing of the chain of deliveries through the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.
Dioxins are long-lasting environmental pollutants formed as unwanted by-products of combustion processes, such as waste incineration, bonfires and cigarette smoke. Concerns about the impact of dioxins on human health are rooted in the potential risk to health evolving from long-term consumption of foods containing high levels of the contaminants.
Potato by-products, such as potato peels, were found to contaminated by high levels of dioxins at a Dutch potato processing company, caused by the dioxin-affected clay used separate high-quality potatoes from lower quality versions. The by-products are used for animal feeding.
As a result, the authorities have blocked all movement of animals from 162 farms in the Netherlands, eight in Belgium and three in Germany, which received the animal feed, and national authorities in the EU member states are currently tracing through the food chain.
"So far, our system of traceability and alert notifications is working well. It is vital that the confidence of the consumer in our food chain is maintained," said Health Commissioner David Byrne.
Member state authorities and the Commission are co-operating closely to ensure that safety of consumer is not jeopardised, he added.
In the wake of food safety scares in the 1990s that severely compromised consumer confidence in the food chain, David Byrne, the commissioner for health and consumer protection, took up the mantle under President Prodi's administration to tackle food safety issues.
His White Paper on Food Safety, passed in January 2000, established a framework of new laws designed to minimise risk to the food chain and create a vigilant backdrop to Europe's €600 billion food production industry.
"Quite frankly, the progress we have made in the field of food safety has been nothing short of remarkable," said Byrne in September at an agriculture council meeting in Noordwijk.
He acknowledged that the food industry has borne the brunt of continual regulatory reform, and said he hoped that the state of change would stabilise. "We do not wish to see the food industry in a state of constant flux, either as a result of crises, or due to continual regulatory reform. Indeed, we recognise that the industry needs the stability of a reliable and secure food safety system in order for it to prosper and thrive."
Speaking to the member states' agriculture ministers, the Commissioner raised the issue of risk assessment and the role this has to play in an increasingly global food trade.
"Risk posted by food products are perceived differently throughout the world. Therefore, I see it as challenge to move towards global risk assessment, accepted by all. With this goal in mind, one exciting development with significant potential is the new initiative I launched aimed at greater co-operation between our own EFSA and the FDA in the United States."
For the Irish eurocrat, common ground and guidelines at an international level can be principally achieved through the UN-backed body Codex.
"This, I hope, will mark an important step on a long and ambitious strategy with the prize of global risk assessment as its ultimate goal,"said Bryne.
And the natural step from risk assessment is to risk management.
"Let me leave you with a final thought. If we ever reach the state of global risk assessment, and the required level of mutual trust, why should we stop there? Could we perhaps then envisage global risk management as a tangible possibility?"
Byrne is due to leave his post in November with the arrival of a new Commission under the incumbent José Manuel Barroso. Cypriot Markos Kyprianou will take over the reins as health commissioner.