A global food safety network has been involved in almost double the number of incidents in the past few years.

INFOSAN was active during 162 food safety events across all regions in 2018 and 2019. This included 84 in 2019 and 78 in 2018. It was involved in 84 international incidents during 2016 and 2017.

The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), launched in 2004, is managed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Biological hazards were responsible for the largest number of INFOSAN events, the most common of which was Salmonella spp. There were 110 alerts involving a biological hazard, 29 involving a physical one, 11 due to a chemical hazard, 11 involving an undeclared allergen, and one an unspecified hazard.

Salmonella a major issue
Salmonella was responsible for 41 events in 2018-2019. Followed by 22 because of Listeria monocytogenes, 13 because of E. coli, six because of Norovirus, five because of Clostridium spp., Hepatitis A virus and unspecified biological hazards had four each, three for Vibrio spp., two each due to Bacillus spp., Cronobacter sakazakii, Cyclospora cayetanensis, and one each for Anisakis, Mycotoxins, Pseudomonas spp. and Staphylococcus aureus.

For chemical hazards, issues involving excess amounts of heavy metals occurred most frequently, other hazards responsible for food safety events were iodine, ciguatera toxin, histamine, hydrogen cyanide, methanol, boron and an unspecified hazard.

Twenty three incidents involved milk and dairy products, 19 were due to fish and other seafood, 15 because of snacks, desserts and other foods, and 14 due to meat and meat products.

The INFOSAN Secretariat helps communication and shares food safety information among network members. This allows countries to remove contaminated food from international and domestic markets and mitigate the risk of foodborne disease outbreaks.

Time and region of incidents
The average time the INFOSAN Secretariat remained engaged with an event was 10 days, with a minimum of one day and maximum of 134 days, compared to an average of 28 days during 2016-2017.

The longest involvement was the outbreak of listeriosis linked to internationally distributed frozen vegetables produced in Hungary by Greenyard. It affected 54 people in six countries with 10 deaths from 2015 to 2018.

Most of the 162 events involved countries in the European Region, followed by the Western Pacific and the Americas with between 80 and 92 incidents. The Eastern Mediterranean, African Region, and South-East Asia Region were part of 21 to 34 events.

Most reports in 2018/2019 were sent to the secretariat by an INFOSAN emergency contact point or focal point, followed by the RASFF European Commission contact.

“While the proportion of event notifications coming directly from INFOSAN emergency contact points or focal points increased in 2018-2019 compared to previous years, there is room for improvement,” according to the report.

“Delays in reporting food safety events means that unsafe food can remain in the market, available to consumers for purchase, and can result in preventable foodborne illnesses in multiple countries.”

Capacity building
To strengthen regional capacities, INFOSAN supported workshops in Tunisia and Ghana focused on building links between national agencies involved in food safety to better address emergency response.

The report identified limitations in basic surveillance capacity to detect foodborne diseases and food safety events in many countries.

“This highlights the continued need for INFOSAN to partner with FAO and WHO capacity-building programs to support the overall development of food safety systems. When national food safety systems are strengthened, INFOSAN members will become better equipped and capable of identifying, communicating, and responding to food safety emergencies.”

Meanwhile, researchers have described the opinions of INFOSAN members to better understand the role of the network in improving food safety.

An online questionnaire was adapted from English into French and Spanish before being sent to INFOSAN members. Responses were received from 239 members in 137 countries between August and October 2019. The study was published in the Journal of Food Protection.

More than two thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that because of INFOSAN, illnesses have been prevented and lives have been saved. Sixty-two percent agreed that it has improved the safety of the global food supply and 59 percent agreed or strongly agreed that INFOSAN has reduced the burden of foodborne illness globally.

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