The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has held an online workshop on crisis preparedness, giving attention to fast-evolving, largescale foodborne disease outbreaks.

Sixty-three participants attended plenary and/or working group activity sessions across two days.

During the first day, there was a two-hour discussion exercise on incident response in the case of a fast-evolving, largescale foodborne disease outbreak. The fictional scenario was based on a situation where a novel pathogenic virus similar to SARS-CoV-2 turned out to be transmissible in certain food products.

EFSA’s Focal Point Network (FPN) members are from 27 EU member states, Iceland and Norway, as well as observers from Switzerland and EU candidate countries.

Instinctif Partners worked with EFSA on an informal training needs survey for FPN members. Based on 46 responses, the survey indicated that 69 percent of respondents did not have experience of handling a live food or feed crisis, and 58 percent had not undertaken any crisis training previously.

The first day featured EFSA officials talking about challenges when handling a multi-country food safety incident and how FPN members and observers can help. Three case studies were presented from Austria, Italy and Norway sharing experiences of responding during a real multi-country food or feed incident.

Outbreak training
The fictional outbreak incident described CAVID-20, an illness caused by a novel carinavirus that is heat resistant and highly persistent in the environment. Foodborne transmission takes place principally via raw, chilled and frozen foods, but carinavirus can survive light heating. They set up the exercise so CAVID-20 would cause respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, renal and neurological symptoms in patients. Transmission was set to be airborne and foodborne with the virus subject to various mutations.

At the outset, participants were told that in the course of a week, health authorities in a southern European country had detected 30 cases and two deaths from a new, unidentified illness. The pathogen and method of transmission was still unclear.

Seven days later, more than 200 cases and 25 fatalities had been identified in three EU nations and two countries in southern and central Europe. The mode of transmission was still unclear.

Another seven days after, 12 more countries were affected including in western and northern Europe. There were thousands of cases and at least 650 fatalities. Airborne transmission was confirmed as an infection route and epidemiological evidence pointed to foodborne transmission but was not proven. Finally, 21 days from the outset it was proven to also be foodborne.

In a survey, 27 out of 29 respondents found it useful to attend the crisis preparedness exercise.

Among the topics that could have improved the experience, participants proposed clarifications of EFSA’s expectations regarding focal points’ role in a crisis situation, more case studies from countries that have been involved in actual multi–country outbreaks with EFSA involvement and more extensive presentation of the EU crisis processes.

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