Researchers have looked at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected food controls by European importing countries.

The work analyzes food safety notifications reported by EU countries in the first five months of 2020 compared to 2019 and 2018 by using data from the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

The aim of the research was to detect possible changes in food safety regulations imposed by control authorities that could aggravate economic impacts of the pandemic bearing in mind normal yearly variation.

Because of COVID-19, the European Commission has relaxed certain measures about official controls. These temporary rules will continue until July 2021.

Decline in trade
The volume of notifications on most imported foodstuffs decreased considerably as a consequence of the fall in international trade, which might have increased countries’ reliance on domestic sources, according to the study published in the journal Food Control.

It was found that COVID-19 has not been a key factor for countries to change their profile in terms of the product categories and risk decisions of reported border notifications on food imports.

Consequences of the pandemic did not substantially affect notifying authorities. Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom were the most active, regardless of the year or product. Researchers said this stability is a positive sign and gives some reassurance to the agri-food industry.

RASFF data were used to explore the impact of COVID-19 and the disruption of the food chain, which might lead to the relaxing or tightening of food controls at the border.

There are several reasons for authorities to tighten regulation of food safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first is to regain consumer confidence in the food chain, the second is that the food supply chain might be a possible transmission route, third is agencies such as the FAO and WHO warning that lockdown might have altered national and international food safety control systems and fourth is the opportunity for food fraud.

In total, 3,629 notifications — 32.7 percent in 2018, 38.8 percent in 2019 and 28.4 percent in 2020 — were obtained from the RASFF database between January and  May 20 in the three years covered.

Changes not linked to pandemic
Notifications show a decrease of more than 25 percent between 2019 and the same period in 2020. This can be attributed to the reduction in trade, according to the researchers.

In 2018 and 2019, nuts, nut products and seeds were the subject of 23 percent of all notifications, decreasing to 14.1 percent in 2020. This was followed by fruits and vegetables, which remained at about 15 percent.

For food of animal origin most notifications related to poultry. There were differences over time, from 108 in 2018 to 178 in 2020. However, this trend cannot be directly attributed to the pandemic, said researchers.

The sharpest declines were for fish and fish products — 94 in 2018 to 68 in 2020 — and crustaceans and products thereof — 14 in 2018 to 9 in 2020 — but this could not be linked to COVID-19.

Border rejection was the most common type of notification, representing 44 percent in 2018 and decreasing 13 percent in 2020. The next most important type was an alert and it was top in 2020. This change can be linked to a higher reliance on intra-EU sources, according to the report.

No significant changes were observed between 2018 and 2020 based on the predicted levels of risk of products which are serious, not serious or undecided.

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