Members of an international food safety network have heard that in the increasingly globalized world, a local outbreak of foodborne illness can rapidly evolve into a global crisis.

The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) is a voluntary network of more than 600 members from 190 countries. It is run by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO).

The Second Global Meeting of INFOSAN was in December 2019 in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and attended by more than 285 participants from 135 countries. It was organized by FAO, WHO and the Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority (ADAFSA).

After nearly a decade since the first meeting in 2010, the aim of the event was to bring members together as the network has increased in membership and level of activity, and as national food safety authorities are facing new challenges and opportunities.

Listeria outbreak focus
INFOSAN’s purpose is to ensure rapid sharing of information during food safety emergencies to stop the spread of contaminated food from one country to another or limit the public health impact of outbreaks.

A keynote address from Steven Jaffee gave an overview of a World Bank report that suggests much of the health and economic burden of unsafe food can be avoided through preventive measures, investments, and behavioral changes adopted from farm-to-fork. It also drew attention to policies and approaches that governments can use to invest wisely in food safety, to better use private initiatives, and engage effectively with consumers.

Session two covered use of INFOSAN during food safety incidents involving multiple countries. The panel focused on events involving Listeria monocytogenes, because the pathogen has been responsible for some of the largest and most complex outbreaks communicated through INFOSAN in recent years.

Experts from research institutes and food safety authorities explained how listeriosis outbreaks in South Africa, Spain, and that was traced to a factory in Hungary have reshaped the regulatory environment and benefitted from whole genome sequencing (WGS) to trace the source of these foodborne outbreaks.

Regional networks and country examples
Regional networks discussed included the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), Gulf Cooperation Council Rapid Alert System for Food (GCC-RASF), the Arab RASFF, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) RASFF and European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Emerging Risks Exchange Network (EREN).

Gulf Cooperation Council countries include the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait. The ASEAN RASFF was developed in 2006 and the meeting heard there had been 188 notifications posted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

Canada and Australia explained national procedures for sharing information about international recalls using INFOSAN. The process for investigating foodborne diseases and outbreaks in Abu Dhabi, UAE was covered revealing the burden of foodborne diseases is large and underreported.

INFOSAN Emergency Contact Points from the Republic of Korea explained how the national food safety management system is organized and use of an automatic sales blocking system to prevent consumers from purchasing recalled food products.

Another session saw discussions among experts on emerging and important topics for food safety including whole genome sequencing, food fraud, e-commerce, artificial intelligence and risk analysis.

Food sold via e-commerce facilitates rapid global trade but in some instances there is limited regulatory oversight. Use of robots and self-learning machines could reduce foodborne infection, by the decline in transfer of diseases through manual food handling by humans, but they could also contribute to it if food safety concepts are not built into operating systems and algorithms.

An online survey was sent to meeting participants after the event and 74 people responded. Topics for future meetings include foodborne outbreaks on ships and the role of INFOSAN, simulation exercises, training, the role of manufacturers during food safety emergencies, estimation of the national burden of foodborne disease and food crime.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)