Following the discovery of fipronil in eggs in the summer of 2017, the Dutch Safety Board investigated how emerging risks to food safety are detected and assessed in the Netherlands. The study concluded that the food system in the Netherlands is vulnerable to emerging food safety risks. There is no structured approach to detecting and assessing such risks and in consequence, risks are not always identified or are discovered too late, which can result in unnecessary damage to public health.
Approach to emerging risks fails to make progress
In recent years, the Netherlands has been surprised by food safety incidents on several occasions. Examples are the outbreaks of EHEC in sprouted seeds, salmonella in smoked salmon, and Q fever. These outbreaks led to health damage and to the deaths of individuals. Illegal practices, such as the fraudulent sale of horsemeat and the recent illegal use of fipronil in the egg sector, led to social unrest and a loss of confidence in food safety.
Although it is clear that it is not possible to prevent every single incident, it should be expected that parties in the food chain will do all that is reasonably possible to ensure that people are not made ill by food. A robust food safety system stands or falls with the timely and comprehensive identification of possible hazards and risks. It is also essential that there be signals indicating that those risks are occurring, and for those signals to be picked up and recognized in good time. It is, therefore, not just a case of identifying what can go wrong, and what the consequences are if it does go wrong, but also of detecting that it has gone wrong. This makes it possible to pre-empt food incidents as far as this is possible and, if they do occur, to intervene rapidly, so that risks to public health remain limited.
The fipronil incident shows that the food safety system does not work optimally on these points. The emerging risk was detected and recognized too late. Although it turned out afterwards that there was limited damage to health, the incident led to great social disquiet and substantial economic damage. This report gives more examples of gaps in the system. From this it can be concluded that there is no structured approach in the Netherlands to detecting and assessing emerging food safety risks. Parties in the food chain focus mainly on known hazards and risks. Risks from new versions of known hazards and risks, and risks that arise through a change in the environment, remain unnoticed. Indications of existing risks are not always picked up and recognised.
Towards a structured approach
The Dutch Safety Board sees opportunities for improving the detection and assessment of emerging risks. A condition for this is that the responsibilities for detecting and assessing emerging risks should be clearly assigned. Naturally, companies are – and continue to be – responsible for managing food safety risks and the NVWA ensures that they do so. More needs to be done in the case of emerging food safety risks, because they are often surrounded by uncertainty and there are not always immediate prospects for taking action. This type of risk is not automatically tackled by companies, because a legal basis is lacking, taking action involves extra costs, and the benefits are not clear. Companies also fear that if they detect emerging risks, they will be forced to take precautionary measures, although this might subsequently turn out to have been unnecessary.
To the Minister for Medical Care and Sport (Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, VWS):
1. Make arrangements to ensure that emerging food safety risks and developments that can lead to emerging food safety risks are identified systematically and in a timely manner.
2. Intensify cooperation within the EU to achieve systematic detection and assessment of emerging food safety risks, to which all member states contribute and which all member states can use.
To the RIVM:
3. Ensure substantial improvement in surveillance and in detecting the source of foodborne disease, as well as in the attribution of cases to food sources. In doing this, use the facilities offered by new diagnostic technologies as much as possible and seek cooperation with international institutes in order to develop best practices.
To the NVWA:
4. Oversee and ensure that food companies use the reports on threats and other relevant information on emerging food safety risks in their approach to risk.
Insufficient overview of food safety risks in the Netherlands