A limited number of countries contribute the majority of information exchanged through a global food safety network, according to a study.

The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) is managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) and helps exchange information globally during food safety related incidents.

Data from 2011 to 2017 reveals nine member states were each involved in 24 or more food safety events communicated through INFOSAN, whereas 123 nations were part of three events or less, including 36 countries involved in none. The study was published in the Foodborne Pathogens and Disease journal.

United States often involved
An average of 42 food safety events went through INFOSAN annually from 2011 to 2017 making a total of 293 incidents. The United States was involved in 91 of the 293 events, followed by China (64), Canada (60), Australia and United Kingdom (48 each) and France and Germany (40 each).

Each year, an average of 74 of 194 member states were involved in events with a minimum of 56 in 2011 and maximum of 120 in 2017.

Overall, 159 countries were part of a food safety issue in the network between 2011 and 2017 and each event involved an average of four member states with a minimum of one and maximum of 73. However, most nations dealt with three events or less during this period (123 of 194), including 36 that have never been involved.

When it was launched in 2004, INFOSAN included members from 100 member states. In 2018, the number had grown to 188 of the 194 FAO and WHO member states with 600 individual members from sectors of national authorities involved in food safety.

Active participation in INFOSAN may indicate well-resourced countries with robust control systems and effective surveillance that allows for identification of foodborne illness and unsafe food, as well as the protocols to report it at international level and does not mean an unsafe food supply.

Member response times
Data shows that although overall responsiveness of members during emergencies has improved, impediments to rapid and efficient information sharing still persist. A number of potential barriers to active participation in INFOSAN have been hypothesized such as insufficient funds, training, language, confidentiality fears, accuracy of information, standardization or coordination.

To understand how responsive INFOSAN members have been, data from 459 requests for information relating to 192 food safety events between 2011 and 2017 were analyzed.

During the seven-year period, overall responsiveness with respect to acknowledgements increased from a minimum of 28 percent in 2011 (25 percent within 24 hours) to a maximum of 91 percent in 2017 (59 percent within 24 hours).

During the period, 70 percent (318/459) of all requests made to INFOSAN Emergency Contact Points were answered with provision of information (with a low of 59 percent in 2012 and high of 78 percent in 2013 and 2016). The average number of days it took for information requests to be acknowledged is two and the average number of days for information to be provided after such a request was seven.

“The fact that information requests have, on average, taken seven days to respond to, leaves much room for improvement if INFOSAN is to function efficiently to halt the international spread of illness caused by contaminated food,” according to the study.

INFOSAN also has a partnership with PulseNet International. This network was one of the first to share signals with the INFOSAN Secretariat to indicate a food safety issue has global implications, including during an outbreak of salmonellosis in Canada and the U.S. caused by internationally distributed chia seed products in 2014.

An outbreak of listeriosis linked to internationally distributed prepacked caramel apples in 2014 was the first time the INFOSAN Secretariat included the whole genome sequence of the outbreak strain in communication to members to aid national authorities in identifying cases in their countries.

Another study on INFOSAN published in the journal BMJ Open is looking at experiences of members with respect to participation in network activities.

The research will combine quantitative and qualitative methods including website analytics, online surveys and semi-structured interviews.

A questionnaire will be sent to INFOSAN members in 188 countries and adapted from English into French and Spanish to encourage a higher response rate.

Results will be used by the INFOSAN Secretariat at WHO to plan work intended to encourage and support active participation in the network.

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