EU should celebrate but not remain complacent about food safety

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

ENVI hearing of the new EFSA executive director designate, Bernhard URL [Dominique HOMMEL/European Parliament]

As Europe celebrates World Food Safety Day for the first time, Bernhard Url welcomes the fact that every year, on June 7, the world’s attention will be drawn to the crucial role that food safety plays in our daily lives and to its importance in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Bernhard Url is the executive director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), based in Parma. He wrote this op-ed on the occasion of the first-ever World Food Safety Day (7 June).

In Europe, we largely assume that our food is safe. A Eurobarometer survey published today by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) finds that for four out of five EU citizens safety is not the top concern when it comes to food.

We should celebrate this. Huge progress has been made and important rules, standards and hygiene practices have been agreed that give the large majority of Europeans confidence in the food that they find on their plates.

Food safety is also fundamental to the size and success of the EU’s food sector and export market. Global demand for food produced in the EU is not just thanks to our long-standing traditions and heritage, although these factors are important. We trade food globally because it is safe and is recognised as such by our commercial partners.

Yet we must not be complacent. The UN estimates that 420,000 people die every year from eating contaminated food in developed and developing countries. Many more suffer from the estimated 600 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually around the globe. Vulnerable communities, particularly in areas beset by conflict, poverty and hunger, are disproportionately affected, as are infants, women and the elderly.

Meanwhile, new risks emerge that threaten our food systems and demand response: antibiotic resistance; environmental pollutants such as plastic and other contaminants; and novel strains of animal diseases including avian influenza and African Swine Fever, to name only a few.

Without bold and coordinated action, antibiotic resistance alone could have drastic consequences for the future treatment of human diseases and for healthcare costs.

Acknowledging the importance of food safety with a dedicated day is a significant step in the right direction. It marks a commitment, entered into by governments across the world, to prioritise and raise awareness of food safety. However, for this commitment to bear fruit, and to address the challenges I set out above, there are two key changes that I believe are needed.

First, more emphasis must be placed at a political level in international cooperation. In an increasingly interconnected world, it makes no sense to tackle global food safety issues with continental, national or even regional policies.

We will be better placed to respond quickly to cross-border food crises and emerging risks if we focus on removing barriers to sharing knowledge, data and expertise. Our experience at EFSA proves this can be effective.

For example, in working jointly with our sister agency the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) we produce rapid assessments of food-borne disease outbreaks that affect multiple countries. This joint work can help save lives and prevent suffering.

Second, the role of science must be at the centre of food safety policy-making and funded appropriately. In Europe, the strict separation between the assessment of risks, done by scientific organisations like EFSA, and the management of risks done by European and national policymakers, has been shown to be successful.

It ensures that political decisions are based primarily on rational models for understanding the complexity of risk and the environment in which we live. This does not come without a cost, particularly as complexity in science is increasing in line with innovation and new technologies. I would urge governments and those responsible for coordinating research funding to increase investment in food safety science.

If we give food safety the political priority it deserves, we can be confident in our ability to tackle the most pressing food-related risks – risks that threaten both our health and our environment. And in the process, we will make a major contribution towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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