2015 EU-Taiwan Food Safety Seminar: Food Risk Assessment, Management and Communication
Taipei, 22 June
Note: This is an abridged version. To read the full report, please click HERE.
The 2015 EU-Taiwan Food Safety Seminar was jointly organized by the European Economic and Trade Office (EETO), under the framework of the European Business and Regulatory Cooperation Programme (EBRC), the Food Safety Office, Executive Yuan, the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration (TFDA), the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MoHW) and the Bureau of Foreign Trade (BoFT), Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA). The seminar brought together government officials and experts from both the EU and Taiwan to share experience on food risk management. The seminar was attended by 280 representatives of European and Taiwanese industries, government authorities and academia. The first session of the seminar covered the general principles of food risk management and how to strengthen food safety networks through the establishment and execution of policies. The second session focused on food traceability systems and introduced the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which aims to reinforce consumer confidence in food safety and Food Business Operators (FBOs). Each session ended with a Q&A session while the seminar was concluded with a panel discussion featuring all of the speakers from both sessions.
Guests of honour
• Mao Chi-kuo, Premier, Executive Yuan
• Eric Marin, Deputy Head of Unit, Directorate-General of Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE)
Final panel discussion moderator:
Opening speeches were made by Taiwan Premier Mao Chi-kuo and Frédéric Laplanche, Head of the European Economic and Trade Office (EETO).
Topic: An introduction to the EU food safety system
Marin began with an overview of the EU’s food safety system, how risk is assessed and how imports are regulated. He noted that every EU Member State applies the same harmonized food legislation but has different organizational systems.
1993 saw the introduction of the single internal market in the EU. Several crises during the 1990s and early 2000s, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease), dioxin contaminations and foot-and-mouth disease, prompted the formulation of a White Paper on food safety in 2000 and the General Food Law in 2002. The law effectively harmonized rules within the EU and also allowed for the distribution of food within the EU without restrictions.
Member States can adopt their own legislation as long as it is in line with the General Food Law and does not enable discrimination against any other Member State. DG SANTE auditors periodically visit various Member States to ensure that implementation is in accordance with the General Food Law in all Member States.
The general principles of the food law are: risk analysis, a scientific basis, the precautionary principle and transparency. The basic premise is that consumers have the right to safe food and to accurate and honest information and the EU is committed to following international obligations.
In principle and practice it is the primary responsibility of Food and Feed Business Operators (FBOs) to: import, produce and place on the market safe food/feed, identify hazards to prevent, eliminate or reduce before products become available to consumers, withdraw non-compliant feed and food and inform consumers if there are any problems. A key element in ensuring food safety is traceability. Every FBO is responsible for being able to trace one step forward and one step backwards from their position in the food chain and record the data.
Member States have an obligation to put rules and sanctions in place, monitor and verify implementation and communicate on food safety. The Commission’s role is to test the performance of Member States’ control capacities through audits and inspections.
The Commission has the following special powers: Inspection powers (through the Food Veterinary Office); emergency powers to protect health (human, animal and plant) and coordination of action in the event of cross-border problems. Under emergency powers, the Commission may implement emergency legislation to control food circulation.
The Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is a key element in dealing with various crises. Member States send notifications of serious health risks to the central RASFF database. An important element in assessing food safety risk in the EU is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA is an independent institution that analyses and takes into account all relevant factors in its risk assessments and gives opinions which are then used by Member State governments or the European Council to base their decisions on.
Marin concluded that the EU has the highest standards in the world, which are scientifically-based and transparent, and the EU ensures fair competition. Prevention is better than cure, which is why the EU system is designed to try to avoid crises. Nevertheless when crises happen, the EU has made great strides in improving its crisis management by putting in place risk-based and balanced measures.
Speaker: Stéphane André, Policy Officer, DG SANTE
Topic: The EU approach to risk communication
In the EU, risk assessment, risk management and risk communication are separated. The EFSA is primarily responsible for risk assessment while the European Commission (primarily DG SANTE) and Member States are responsible for risk management.
The EFSA has developed a strong communication policy and operates based on five principles:
Simplicity and transparency, independence, visibility and outreach, coherence and dialogue.
As a risk manager, the European Commission's first principal is transparency. EFSA has three main objectives: 1) To bridge the gap between science and the consumer; 2) Understand consumer perceptions of food and food safety risks and 3) Promote coherent risk communications.
To meet the first objective to bridge the gap between science and the consumer EFSA works to communicate complicated scientific analysis and terms in language that ordinary people can understand.
The Advisory Forum Working Group on Communications (AFWGC), established in November 2003, is a network of communications units from EFSA, Member States and the Commission which convenes four times a year. The AFWGC’s key role is to promote coherence in communications. It does so by coordinating risk communications, information exchange, evaluation of efforts and developing best practices.
For its part in 2009, the European Commission created a Health Security Communications Network which works on concrete health crises such as flu pandemics, H1N1 and response to Japan’s Fukushima disaster. The network shares information such as how to deal with communication challenges, and coordinates action such as audio conferences and workshops.
Each type of situation requires a different communication strategy but the following general approach is taken: When there is a high public health impact and a high level of public concern, authorities need to rapidly and widely communicate warnings and information. When there is a high public health impact and a low level of public concern, authorities need to actively persuade people to take action. When there is a low level of public health impact and high level of public concern, authorities need to help the public to put the risks into context. When there is a low level of public health impact and a low level of public concern, authorities need only make information available to those who seek it.
Session 1: Risk Management: Combating food fraud experiencing sharing
Topic: Crisis management of the oil scandal in Taiwan
Tsai gave an overview of Taiwan’s food safety management infrastructure and crisis management, with reference to Taiwan’s edible oil scandal. The Office of Food Safety and the 18-member Committee of Food Safety are separate bodies that fall directly under the control of the Executive Yuan (EY). The Food Safety Committee comprises ministers from relevant central authorities, experts, and delegates from NGOs, including consumer protection groups and plays a consulting and advisory role.
The Office of Food Safety’s main areas of focus are joint inspections and risk alerts. It has set up a joint inspection task force and a preventive alert task force. The office convenes regular inter-agency meetings to discuss food safety issues, such as a clearance programme for unregistered food processing factories and border controls for specific goods. The office is also working on setting up an ICT Food Cloud, using open data and crowd sourcing, as well as a Food Risk Assessment Taskforce.
Given the damage to the reputation of Taiwan’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certification system in the wake of recent scandals, authorities assessed the feasibility of an industry-initiated certification system and discussed how to align certification practice with international standards. It concluded that GMP would be reformed and transformed into Taiwan Quality Food (TQF).
The MoHW is now implementing a three-tier food management system, based on risk. Tier one is compulsory self-governing management implemented by industry. Tier two is compulsory third party certification. Tier three is reinforced inspections conducted by competent authorities.
Tsai concluded that Taiwan is working hard to be proactive and prevent crises before they happen and to be able to respond effectively when a crisis happens. Inter-agency cooperation will henceforth be a key factor in crisis management.
Topic: Dioxin contamination in the EU
Speaker: Vicky Lefevre, Director-General, DG Control Policy, Belgian Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain
Lefevre talked about her agency’s response and follow up actions to the 1999 dioxin crisis in Belgium. Like all EU Member States Belgium follows the General Food Law (EC No 178/2002) and related laws such as the Hygiene Package, Official Food and Feed Control Regulation (EC 882/2004) and Official Controls on products of animal origin (EC 854/2004).
In the EU system, Member States are responsible for enforcement of food/feed law and official controls and public communication on food safety and risk while FBOs are responsible for hygiene, traceability, withdrawal of non-compliant food, providing information about risks to consumers and to competent authorities and cooperating with authorities regarding their products.
The 1999 dioxin crisis was handled poorly but it provided a valuable learning experience. Since then everything has changed. While there was never a serious risk to human health, contamination was spread through the food chain, both in and outside Belgium, while the crisis had a huge knock-on effect. Around 2,000 farms were affected and had to destroy €250 million worth of meat, poultry, eggs and other foodstuff. The overall financial impact was estimated at €437.5 million. In addition, the crisis precipitated the resignation of two ministers (who had kept quiet about the problem for two months) and seriously damaged the image and reputation of Belgian products. This had broader ramifications beyond the affected products given that Belgium is food exporter.
Following the crisis, stringent measures were put in place, which have so far been effective as there has not been a serious food crisis in Belgium since 1999. One year after the crisis, Belgium modernized its civil service, established new food safety policies based on EU policies, and clearly defined political responsibility. Part of government modernization was a merger of six former control services of the Ministries of Agriculture and Public Health into the national Belgian Food Safety Agency (FASFC).
FBOs are required to conduct self-checks while the FASC does sampling to check for things like heavy metals, mycotoxins and pesticide residues. Samples are analysed and results are put into a central database for easy reference. Border inspections are done based on the number of consignments or based on complaints and infringements.
The best approach to incident management, according to Lefevre is an open and practical one that places consumer interests as a starting point. Belgium’s system is well-equipped to deal with crises given its flexible structure and procedures, early warning/detection systems, efficient and quick response and short chain of command.
In terms of communication, the 1999 crisis showed how poor communication resulted in mass hysteria. The lesson from that crisis is that consumers react rather irrationally when food is involved and the potential impact is quickly dramatized, especially when there are fatalities, uncertainty concerning the source, impact, scale, risk or contradictory information. Nowadays, the prevalence of global news sites means that bad news spreads quickly while social media often exacerbate the frenzy by exaggerating or spreading false information. To keep things from blowing out of proportion Lefevre advised to communicate immediately and give the right and the right amount of information. Too much information may cause consumers to react irrationality. In principle it is always best to be open, transparent, direct, honest and accurate, provide comprehensible and consistent information at the right time and make sure the message and information channels are adapted to the target group.
Topic: EU food crisis management: EU actions against food fraud
Speakers: Eric Marin, Deputy Head of Unit, DG SANTE
There is no standard definition for food fraud in the EU and each Member State has its own administrative and judicial sanctions. However, there are four criteria to be met to constitute food fraud: violation of the EU Food Law, intention, economic gain and deception of customers. Organized criminals tend to set up their fraudulent businesses in countries with the most lenient penalties where it is easiest to cheat. They also tend to split businesses between countries to take advantage of limited cross-border cooperation.
The EU’s rapid alert and traceability systems were used to find the main trader in the EUs horse meat scandal in The Netherlands, who was selling products throughout Europe. This case demonstrated that the traceability system works very well but also showed how complex the food chain is.
To crack down on food fraud there is a need for extensive collaboration. This is the aim of the Food Fraud Network, which promotes exchange of administrative information among Member States in cases of suspicion, and cooperation between the judiciary, police and administrators. There is already judicial cooperation at the EU level which can be a complex process between Member States. Europol coordinates between police forces in Member States to investigate crimes. However, given the number of serious criminal activities, food fraud is relatively low on their priority list.
Session 2: Risk commutation and best practice sharing
Topic: Implementation of traceability systems in Belgium
Speaker: Vicky Lefevre, Director-General, Belgian Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain
According to Belgian law all FBOs in Belgium, from small vending shops to farms, have to be registered before they are allowed to practice any activity. All FBOs are registered in a central database, each with a unique number, which for companies is the same number used to register a business. For food of an animal origin, approval is required after an on-site visit. Each entity is registered for each type of activity.
Belgian laws go further than EU law for certain items Belgian authorities regard as necessary. For example, EC 178/2002 has a limited description of traceability while Belgium law elaborates on this aspect. According to EU guidance, the decision on whether to adopt an internal traceability system and the level of detail should be left to the FBO, commensurate with the size and nature of the food business. However, Belgian law requires systems and procedures to establish a link between supplied and delivered products (although the level of internal traceability is sector dependent). Belgian FBOs should have systems in place to establish links between incoming and outgoing goods. Belgian law also requires records to be kept for longer than EU guidance and specifies what type of information should be kept. EU guidance does not specify how quickly FBOs need to provide traceability records but Belgian law requires operators to be able to collect principal tracing information within four hours, start notification to clients and the FASFC within four hours and complete more detailed tracing data within 24 hours.
While it is troublesome, especially for small operators, to keep accurate traceability records, it benefits them in the event of a crisis. Lefevre cited an example of a company that made cheese from raw milk in Belgium, in which traces of the listeria bacteria were found. Even though the contamination came from a single source, because the FBO had mixed milk from too many suppliers together, all products from that batch (15,000 cheeses) had to be destroyed. This was a disaster for the affected company and its brand. While it is up to the operator to decide on the size of its batches, they have to realise that the bigger the batch size, the higher the risk.
Other presentations were given on the following topics:
Topic: Taiwan’s food traceability system
Speaker: Wu Hsi-wen, Section Chief, Food Safety Division, TFDA, MoHW
Topic: Carrefour’s traceability
Speaker: Margery Ho, Public Relations Manager, Carrefour Taiwan
Topic: TAP - Consumer oriented traceable GAP product system in Taiwan
Speaker: Fu Tzu-yu, Senior Specialist & Chief, Planning Division, Council of Agriculture (CoA), Executive Yuan
Topic: Case study of traceability implementation in Taiwan: Hankuan Taiwan
Speaker: Liao Ting-chuan, Chairman, Hankuan Taiwan
Topic: Introduction to the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and the transformation of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) to Taiwan Quality Food (TFQ)
Speaker: Bonnie Sun Pan, TQF Chairlady
Topic: Global Food Safety Standards and GFSI accredited certification systems & Taiwan GMP/TQF reform
Speaker: Yeh An-gong, TQF Consultant & Safe Quality Food (SQF) Trainer
Final panel discussion: From the farm to the table
Moderator: Bonnie Sun Pan, TQF Chairlady
The final panel discussion featured all of the speakers from both of the day’s sessions. Panelists from both the EU and Taiwan noted that good information and examples had been shared that are useful to both sides. In particular, Taiwanese panelists praised the Belgian food safety system while European panelists praised the Hankuan group as an excellent example of supporting small farmers by paying for certification costs, which is a significant issue for small farmers.
Taiwanese panelists noted that there is work to be done to increase coherence and cooperation between government, industry and consumers. While recent food crises have hurt, they can be turned into an opportunity to promote and restore Taiwan’s reputation as a food haven.
Panelists concluded that food safety requires a comprehensive approach. The food chain is very complex, especially for big businesses which have large supply chains. The challenges are very different for small FBOs but problems can be dealt with if there is a good traceability system in place since only affected products need be withdrawn if there is a problem.