A workshop has supported countries in the Western Balkans to better respond to food safety emergencies.

Among challenges highlighted were enhancing cooperation between different food safety agencies, ensuring cross-border information sharing, and enabling joint investigation and response to food safety emergencies. Such events include foodborne outbreaks, food fraud and adulteration, chemical contamination and other non-compliance with regulations.

The face-to-face workshop in November 2021 in Durrës, Albania included 25 participants from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo.

Officials from each country spoke about the food safety system they had in place, identified challenges and gaps and listed recommendations for improvements.

This was followed by presentations from the WHO Regional Office for Europe, the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) and the European Commission Directorate General for Health and Food Safety (DG Sante).

The focus was on risk analysis, which provides national authorities with an approach to make evidence-based decisions. It consists of three parts: risk assessment; risk management; and risk communication. Risk analysis is used to estimate food safety risks to human health, identify and implement measures to control them, and communicate about the risks and measures applied.

Country specific focus
In Western Balkan countries, there is a need to improve procedures used for investigation and response to food safety incidents and emergencies. During such events there are often time constraints, a lack of data and knowledge gaps, according to the workshop report.

Some countries lack risk-based tools, standard operating procedures and instructions, procedures and guides to effectively respond to foodborne diseases and communicate and share information.

In terms of actions to strengthen food safety, Montenegrin officials said there was a need to develop an operational plan for responding to events and to conduct simulation exercises to test it.

Strengthening capacity for risk assessment and introducing the One Health approach were key topics for North Macedonia. The focus in Bosnia and Herzegovina was on improving food safety incident management through training and simulation exercises and capacities for joint investigation and response to outbreaks. Another area was creating a monitoring program for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Albanian officials highlighted the need for an assessment of the legal framework and preparing a national food safety response plan. Other areas were to establish a food safety network in Serbia and develop a legal framework and a response plan for emergencies in Kosovo.

The meeting attendees agreed on the need for a sub-regional page in the INFOSAN community website for emergency contact and focal points from the Western Balkans to boost communication and information sharing across nations in the region.

Another area was the possibility of granting Western Balkan countries access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) platform to get information on food safety events.

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