Countries in the Western Balkans have been told more about how to use an international food safety network.
A two-day workshop, organized by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, was held in Belgrade, Serbia in May 2022.
The main aim was to support countries in rapidly exchanging information during food safety emergencies. This was done by strengthening familiarity with and understanding of the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN).
The event was attended by 15 government officials from ministries of health, food safety authorities, and food and veterinary services in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo and featured presentations, discussions and a simulated exercise.
Between 2011 and 2020, the value of imports and exports in crops and livestock products increased in the Western Balkans. Except for Serbia, the Western Balkan countries are net importers of agri-food products. Training in November 2021 covered the use of risk analysis in response to food safety emergencies in the region.
External evaluations in Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have highlighted the need to strengthen food safety incident and emergency response systems.
Participants said barriers to information sharing includes unclear roles and responsibilities between the different agencies responsible for food safety; limited human resources, the number of stakeholders involved in risk communication and different procedures for communicating and reporting to RASFF and INFOSAN.
Anne Gravett, from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), spoke about the complexity of accessing food safety information in the United Kingdom following its withdrawal from the European Union, comparing the situation to that in the Western Balkans; their position outside the EU meant the UK and Western Balkans had many issues in common.
Gravett said INFOSAN and the related community website had helped the UK prepare for and respond to food safety incidents.
FSA mitigates food safety risks by identifying signals at an early stage through the horizon scanning of web sources and prioritizes them using an algorithm to extract and store key information from food safety alerts and articles, and by analyzing trends. Information sharing and engagement with stakeholders, incident prevention and root cause analysis were also highlighted as important.
Positives in Albania were different agencies working together to help the exchange of information at national, regional and local levels plus updated food regulations. Lab capacity to test for foodborne pathogens and heavy metal residues is sufficient. Negatives include a weak food recall system and the lack of a food safety emergency response plan.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the food safety system is fragmented, there is an unclear division of roles and responsibilities and a lack of a functional IT communication platform.
Key strengths in Kosovo are the legal framework and structure of the food safety and information technology system. However, there is a need for training on food safety and information sharing. Other issues include an inadequate budget and bureaucratic processes for sharing information on safe food.
Positives in Montenegro are the surveillance and monitoring system, which covers priority foodborne diseases and food safety hazards, and daily reporting of communicable diseases. A simulation exercise in food and feed crisis management should be held and partnerships with national and international organizations and agencies in other countries need to be enhanced.
Strengths in North Macedonia are the capacity to conduct risk assessments and risk communication. However, an integrated surveillance system is needed to allow timely information exchange to better understand risks and possibilities for mitigation.
In Serbia, good points included existing food safety legislation, and links with RASFF, INFOSAN, the World Organisation for Animal Health and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which provides information on food safety risks to the country. Uncoordinated responses, a lack of written procedures for communication between veterinary and health services, and separate databases for public health and veterinary services were mentioned as weaknesses.
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