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Food safety should be standardised internationally

23/2000, 12.10.2000

Ministry of Health assigns BgVV key role in risk assessment

"How would you answer the question whether our foods are in fact safe?"- Dr. Dieter Arnold, Director of the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine, anticipated the answer to this question during his opening speech at the conference on "International Prospects of Microbiological Food Safety in Berlin". Scientists, politicians and manufactures would probably answer the question in the affirmative. Consumers would probably answer "no". The term "food safety" depends to a large degree on the angle of the observer and constitutes a snapshot which can change at any time. Potential risks must, therefore, be recognised early on, assessed and suitable steps taken to minimise them. At the same time, the advantages must be in relation to the costs because already today considerable efforts must be made in order to meet the international statutory provisions on food safety. Here the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation use the instrument risk analysis. With the standards of Codex Alimentarius they wish to further improve the safety of foods in globalised trade on the international level.

Around 150 participants from just under 20 European and non-European countries, including representatives of politics, science, monitoring, food industry and consumer protection, came together at the BgVV on 10 and 11 October in order to discuss the practical implementation of this concept. The background to the conference is the globalisation of commerce in foods, which in the interests of consumer protection but also on the basis of international provisions by the World Health Organisation calls for global hygienic standards and the uniform, systematic handling of potential risks.

In Germany alone, around 200,000 cases of foodborne diseases are notified every year. Within the framework of the "WHO Surveillance Programme for Control of Foodborne Infections and Intoxications in Europe", a monitoring programme set up in 1980 and co-ordinated by BgVV, 21,000 outbreaks were notified between 1993 and 1998 in which the pathogen could be identified. The number of cases of diseases with unknown pathogens was far higher. From Greenland over the Mediterranean to the Pacific coast 50 countries today notify their data within the framework of the monitoring programme to the Federal Institute. From next year onwards the monitoring programme is going to supply more quantitative data. Besides details of the person who has become sick and the food involved, there will also be information about characterisation of the pathogen and the germ count in the food involved.

The following trends can be derived from the data of the surveillance programme:

Salmonellosis still assumes a central position amongst foodborne diseases. Salmonellae are responsible for 70% of all notified outbreaks. Whereas the figures in most European countries have levelled out on a high level, in some eastern European countries they are continuing to climb.

Besides salmonellae, diseases caused by campylobacter germs are also growing in importance. In a number of countries like the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Switzerland they have already overtaken salmonellae in terms of numbers as the cause of food infections. Besides the actual increased incidence rates, improved diagnostics and greater awareness amongst doctors about the importance of the pathogen have contributed to this development.

Botulism also plays an important role in parts of central and eastern Europe botulism also plays an important role. This disease is caused above all by food preserves prepared in the home and through smoked fish products as the spores of the toxin-forming germ are extremely heat stable. Cases of botulism are far less frequent in Germany. Only 21 cases of botulism were notified in 1998, in 1999 only 19 cases.

In eastern Europe trichina also continue to play a major role in the course of disease. Between 1993 and 1998 alone 21,000 cases of trichinosis were notified from these countries.

The site of food infections is closely linked to regional life and eating habits. For instance in the Netherlands most people became affected in mass catering facilities (canteens and restaurants), in other countries by contrast in the home. The Scandinavian countries mention illness whilst travelling as the main cause of foodborne diseases.

The inhomogenity of the data constitutes a problem when evaluating them. A major improvement in data quality is expected in Germany after the entry into force of the Infection Protection Act in January 2001. The Act stipulates not only a notification obligation for a series of infectious diseases and the detection of specific pathogens but also envisages for the first time individual notifications according to standardised case definitions. Furthermore, it must be stipulated whether the diseases may be linked to the consumption of foods. The electronic transmission of data to the Robert Koch Institute will considerably shorten the time gap between notification and reaction. Together with the European data sent to BgVV, this information constitutes a scientifically sound basis for the assessment of risks within the framework of the course of infection.

The data are an important part of risk analysis. On this basis BgVV assesses potential risks and advises the Federal Ministry of Health on issues of risk management. The Federal Ministry of Health sees BgVV as occupying a key position in this context. "In risk assessment", commented a representative of the Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Hans Dieter Böhm, "BgVV has a central role". The analysis and assessment of potential risks leads to targeted measures of risk management in order to secure the greatest possible advantage for the consumer with acceptable outlay. This can range from measures in the production process over product safety to raising awareness amongst consumers and, by extension, private households. Consumer organisations also have a role to play here.

The results of the conference are to be incorporated into European legislation. One knock-on effect of the conference is that at the beginning of the forthcoming year BgVV is to set up a hygiene committee consisting of representatives of science, monitoring, control authorities, doctors, consumers and industry. Its task will include involvement in issues of microbiological risk assessment of foods and advising BgVV. The results of the committee work are to be made available within the framework of risk communication to all interested circles.


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