In the European Union, public trust in both national authorities and wider EU institutions is fairly high – 60% and 58% respectively, according to the most recent World Food Safety Day report. However, reports also show that Europeans have a limited understanding of how their food safety system works. It’s not surprising that other recent studies show that EU food safety procedures are lacking. Why is that, and what can we learn from the problems?
What Are The Problems Identified In The EU?
Every year, more than 23 million people in Europe fall ill after eating contaminated food. The most frequent causes of foodborne disease are diarrhoeal disease agents, with salmonella being behind the majority of outbreaks followed by norovirus, according to data published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Out of this affected population, more than 5,000 people die.
Recent studies suggest that there hasn’t been much improvement. In 2019, the most recent numbers, there was a rise in people getting sick and dying from foodborne outbreaks in Europe. Authorities identified a germ in 60 percent of foodborne outbreaks with almost 36,000 cases, 3,300 hospitalizations and 54 deaths. However, the tracing is imperfect; the stats in 2018 showed that they couldn’t identify a causative agent for roughly one in four foodborne outbreaks. In 700 outbreaks with strong evidence, they could trace the source back to animal origins such as egg, meat or fishery products.
Where Are Food Safety Procedures Lacking In The EU?
The World Health Organization says that the aforementioned figures and others like them show the need for increased prevention, surveillance and management of foodborne disease in Europe. They offer improved risk communication, consumer awareness, and education as some of the solutions.
The EFSA says that there is still a need for countries and companies to strengthen their hygienic standards and implement procedures for food manufacturing and preparation, including HACCP plans. Companies can address and tackle weaknesses from top to bottom if they begin with the idea that preventing foodborne disease outbreaks is a shared responsibility. The EFSA believes that all stakeholders in the complete food chain, from production to consumption, can do more.
Stakeholders include governments, food industry companies, academia and consumers. Consumer-focused recommendations about the correct mode of preparation, storage and consumption could also reduce outbreak, more than 40 percent of which took place in a domestic setting. It’s a problem that could continue to get worse as the population ages – more than one-fifth (20.3 %) of the EU population is 65 and over.
It’s necessary to note that the elderly are only one of the vulnerable populations more affected by foodborne illnesses. In Europe, most of the cases that resulted in deaths were in group settings and residential institutions such as nursing homes, boarding schools, prisons, and hospitals. One way to combat this is by raising attention to the increased risks faced by vulnerable populations and ensure proper handling in food prep areas serving them.
What Canada can learn is the importance of continuing our united front in the face of foodborne illnesses. Because a uniform approach isn’t followed by every country in the EU, the safety procedures of many food handling and processing facilities that cross markets aren’t the same. Here in Canada, there is a set of standards that everyone must follow, and we have worked hard to improve the transparency and sustainability of our system. The EU food chain is working to do the same, but much work is still needed.