The FAO has provided advice for countries wanting to create or update digital food alert systems.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) issued guidance on how to design and implement a food control electronic notification system, taking into account a country’s needs and resources. It covers the system’s legal basis, structure, and operational points, as well as the infrastructure and human resource requirements.

More than a third of food exports cross borders at least twice before reaching the consumer and supply chain complexity is growing. Foods that have been produced, processed and distributed by multiple firms can pose heightened safety risks, and tracing the origins of unsafe food is also more complex and time-consuming, according to the document. 

Esther Garrido Gamarro, FAO fishery officer, said the guidance would help countries transition toward the digitalization of food control systems.

The target audience is authorities of countries seeking to implement an e-notification system within existing food controls and their IT support.

A checklist of things to be considered when using an e-notification platform is provided, as well as four examples of current systems from Canada, Chile, the European Commission, and Japan. One of these is the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

“E-notification can greatly accelerate trade and lower costs of transactions, when and where it is set up and integrated into the public and private sector appropriately,” said Markus Lipp, senior food safety officer at FAO.

“It is important to provide a publicly available knowledge base to all interested parties so that not only technical details but also the governance of e-notification systems can be addressed appropriately right from the beginning.”

Role and impact of such a system
E-notification systems facilitate the distribution of information on border rejections and product withdrawals helping authorities, companies, and consumers to take action. However, they require a reliable internet connection, which is not available in every country.

An e-notification system can help find issues that require immediate actions to protect public health and inform risk-based inspections by identifying significant, persistent or worsening hazards that need monitoring and ongoing assessment. Data can also be used to set import controls.

Most nations have control systems for food imports but they range in complexity. While these offer protection against importing unsafe food, they can also impede trade. Many developing countries face challenges to comply with these requirements, which cause border rejections and products to be destroyed.

There is a need for data traceability and the format should allow the international exchange of information. According to the research document, data in the portal must be verified to ensure accuracy and with an update if there is new information or changes in circumstances.

Maintenance and security of IT systems are also vital to keep them operational and ensure that sensitive data, such as those relating to the importing company, may not be accessed by unauthorized users or hackers.

Any business case for a new or enhanced food control e-notification system must include the required resources to upgrade the system, operate it over time, and update it regularly.

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