By Ahmed ElAmin

02/10/2006 – Over the last month, regulators, doctors and scientists have formed communications networks to get a better fix on the problems affecting food safety across the bloc.

The networks are part of the general increase in regulatory and scientific efforts to reduce food borne pathogens throughout the supply chain. The drive is being pushed by the increasing concern by European consumers about food safety. EU and regulatory authorities in member states have been increasing their regulation of the industry, resulting in more costs and greater public scrutiny of manufacturers’ operations. Recalls of products are also costly and impact on the company’s brand image.

On Friday, the 25 EU members signed a commitment with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to share scientific information through the organisation. The commitment also involves sharing research into common food safety problems.

EFSA said that the co-operation will help ensure that research and effort is not duplicated across the bloc. The network will also lead to the early identification and analysis of emerging risks, and a more consistent approach toward food safety by national regulators.

"Strong collaboration amongst member states and EFSA is fundamental to the overall success and effectiveness of the European food safety system, and ultimately to increased consumer protection and confidence," the organisation stated.

The commitment made by member states is part of EFSA’s attempt to share out risk assessment responsibilities with national regulators rather than doing all the work itself. The organisation also wants a more consistent approach to the collection of statistics on food safety.

"EFSA aims to deliver the best science at the right time and in the most appropriate manner," the organisation stated on Friday. "This can only be achieved through effective pooling and leverage at European level of our collective resources and expertise in risk assessment and risk communications.”

The problem of inconsistent reporting standards cropped up in EFSA’s first report on the occurrence of zoonoses across the bloc, published last year. EFSA found that some members collected the statistics, others did not. Countries had different policies and attitudes to the statistics. Those that collected statistics sometimes downplayed some diseases while others did not.

EFSA has been working to set standards on the collection of such statistics to make reporting more uniform across the bloc. It is also looking to collect the statistics through other methods, such as by directly collecting information from the medical profession, for example.

Just such a project was launched earlier last week by the Med-Vet-Net, a network of veterinary, medical and food science research. The organisation announced a new project was launched to improve surveillance of food-borne infections throughout Europe.

Scientists from public health, food, and veterinary institutes agreed on a plan that will allow, for the first time, the magnitude of health problems from food-borne disease to be measured across Europe.

The scientists will test for bacterial infections in human sera, such as blood already stored in medical facilities, in a bit to accurately determine a more accurate estimate of the number of of people getting infected from food borne diseases. Researchers will focus on Campylobacter and Salmonella, which are the two most prevalent forms of food borne disease.

The scientists will also use existing European studies combined with the new data to calculate the ratios between infected cases, cases with symptoms in the community and lab reports.

Information on the level of antibodies to food-borne pathogens will be translated to measures of disease frequency, which again will be compared with the officially reported figures. This will pave the way for the creation of novel, more accurate Europe-wide surveillance systems for gastrointestinal illnesses, the group stated.

"More accurate surveillance of these infections would allow better control methods to be implemented," the group stated.

Currently, collection of data on human infections such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, is not sensitive enough to give an accurate picture for assessment, the organisation stated. Most countries do not have systems that determine the exact number of human infections, but use passive surveillance that relies on physicians and microbiology laboratories reporting infections.

"Worse, this data cannot be compared between European countries as each uses different methods, and physicians have different practices for the management of patients with suspected food-borne infections," said Kåre Mølbak, project leader. “This makes it difficult to calculate the overall burden and cost of diseases and it’s virtually impossible to compare the situation between the different European countries.”

In 2004 the 25 EU countries reported a total of 6,860 outbreaks of zoonoses, with 42,447 people affected.