The food system in the Netherlands is vulnerable to emerging food safety risks, according to the Dutch Safety Board. After the discovery of fipronil in eggs in 2017, the Dutch Safety Board investigated how emerging risks to food safety are detected and assessed in the Netherlands.

It found there is no structured approach to detecting and assessing such risks so they are not always identified or discovered too late and people can become ill unnecessarily as a result. The current structure of detection and assessment of emerging risks was described as “fragmented”.

Emerging versus known risks
The Dutch Safety Board recommended creating a unit to build an overview of emerging risks to food safety. This agency could collect information from academia, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA), food business operators, and consumers.

NVWA has insufficient capacity, resources and expertise for the oversight, detection, risk assessment and laboratories needed to identify emerging food safety risks, according to the report.

The NVWA referred Food Safety News to the Minister of Medical Care and Sport, Bruno Bruins for comments. A spokesman for Bruins said a reaction to it would be presented to parliament after the summer recess.

The investigation showed the food sector mainly focuses on risks that have arisen in the past. However, changing circumstances can cause different food safety risks to occur or become more severe. An example is the same toxin that occurs in the Japanese pufferfish, TTX, being found in Dutch shellfish in 2015.

In recent years, the Netherlands has been hit by outbreaks of E. coli O104 from sprouted seeds in 2011;  Salmonella from smoked salmon in 2012. and the fraudulent sale of horsemeat. For hepatitis E, an increase in infections from pork was detected, but uncertainties as to the risks impeded prompt action.

In the fipronil incident, the use of illegal substances against red mites in laying hens was not recognized as a risk, despite it having occurred previously. This meant action was taken too late and millions of eggs had to be withdrawn from the market.

Increasing complexity and changing trends
The Dutch Safety Board said although it was not possible to prevent every incident, it should be expected those in the food chain do all that is reasonably possible to ensure people do not get ill.

Signals indicating the risks of pathogens on fruit and vegetables might be greater than previously thought are not being picked up and assessed, according to the report. In the United States, fruit and vegetables are considered to be the one of the main causes of foodborne infections, while in the Netherlands, risk is estimated to be very low. The Dutch Safety Board said it was “striking” that this disparity has not been investigated and it is not known which standpoint is closer to reality.

Food production and trade have become more complex in recent decades, making it harder to manage risks as products and raw materials come from across the globe. The number of vulnerable consumers, such as the elderly and chronically ill, is increasing and the trend for consuming more raw and unprocessed food is risky as it is more likely pathogens are not destroyed.

There is growth in the number of channels through which food is sold directly to consumers and efforts to limit food waste bring risks to public health.

In only 0.02 percent of infections is it discovered which food caused illness, according to the report.

“In the overwhelming majority of foodborne infections, the source of the infection is not traced, which is a major shortcoming of the system. It is virtually unknown what has made people ill and in consequence, the infection cannot be tackled at the source. This means that there is a lack of important information for assessing the performance of the food safety system,” said the Dutch Safety Board.

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