A network of “crisis coordinators” has been established by the European Commission as part of plans to improve management of food safety incidents.
The idea of one contact point in each of the 28 EU member states came about at a meeting in September 2017 following the fipronil incident. Findings of the insecticide on Dutch and Belgian farms prompted millions of eggs to be recalled last year.
Each member state, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Commission have designated one crisis coordinator. The objectives are to minimize the extent and impact of foodborne incidents on public health by ensuring better preparedness and management.
Crisis coordinators shall hold meetings, at least yearly, organized by the Commission to present initiatives at EU level, share national contingency plans and provide follow-up and evaluate the management of recent crises.
After each situation requiring the setting up of a crisis unit, the Commission will produce a report including a post-incident assessment. A meeting of all crisis coordinators will then be held to identify potential lessons learned and highlight any necessary improvements required in relation to operational procedures and tools used in crisis management.
Earlier this year, authorities went public on a Listeria outbreak from frozen vegetables that sickened 54 people in six countries with 10 deaths from 2015. It was traced to a plant in Hungary owned by Greenyard. Implicated products were distributed to 116 countries. This outbreak was the first time the EU Commission used the Crisis Coordinators Network to communicate risk management decisions across EU member states.
The Commission will also organize simulation exercises of food and feed related incidents with member states, including communication aspects and focusing on preparedness and management.
Seriousness and extent of an incident in terms of public health impact, consumer perception and political sensitivity, whether it was intentional (e.g. bioterrorism or side effect of fraud) and repetition of previous incidents attributed to the lack of sufficient action are criteria to be considered when deciding whether or not to set up a crisis network.
Risks to public health may be biological, chemical and physical including allergen and radioactive hazards.
The crisis unit is responsible for developing, coordinating and implementing a response strategy and its communication. Once the source of contamination is identified, the unit, with assistance of EFSA and other experts if needed, shall coordinate the traceability investigation as well as follow-up the withdrawal and recall of products if they have been distributed in several member states. Each member state involved is responsible for the traceability investigations, withdrawals and recalls on its territory.
Creation of this network is part of a broader move to update a decision in 2004 as further experience in crisis management coordination has been gained during a number of food- and feed-borne incidents.
The REFIT evaluation of Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 (Fitness Check of the General Food Law) found a need for a stronger focus on crisis preparedness, alongside crisis management, to avoid or minimize the public health impact of a food or feed crisis. This could reduce the economic impact such as trade restrictions of any incident.
“Evidence-based, real-time communication to the public and to trade partners is essential to contribute to protecting public health by avoiding further spread of risks and to restoring confidence in the safety of food or feed not affected by an incident,” said the Commission.
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