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The recent German e.coli scare has been making news around Europe and has led to the plummeting of sales of fresh vegetables, much to the detriment of farmers and the retail industry. Scientists are still at a loss as to the origin of the contamination and it is possible that this will never be established since the batch of contaminated products have already been consumed or destroyed.

Contamination of the food chain is always possible, and perhaps this recent scare should also serve as a reminder that such problems are both more common and more severe in developing countries which face a continuous and combined problem of food security and food safety.

However, it is equally important to use this incident for scrutinizing the European food safety regime. The latter underwent a major reform following the UK BSE crisis and the Belgium dioxin crisis in the 1990s. As a result, the European legislation on food safety is today one of the most comprehensive in the world with respect to product and process standards.

Where then might the mistake have occurred?

European regulators require from farmers and food operators to abide by the so-called HACCP quality control system for monitoring the incidence of contamination along the food chain. HACCP stands for ‘Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points’ and basically comprises a detailed audit programme per food commodity (i.e. for vegetables, dairy products, meat etc.). The guidelines are based on standards agreed internationally in the framework of the Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO and WHO; and are also used by private certification programmes such as the BRC, IFS or ISO 22000:2005

The HACCP guidelines for fruits and vegetables prescribe checking for microbiological and chemical contamination already at the very first stage of arrival of a product in a storage area, in order to control for problems occurring at the ‘source of origin’, i.e. the farm. It is further important that this and subsequent storage areas are controlled with respect to temperature. The next step, is to ‘attach traceability’, i.e. to label the product in such a way as to know from where it originated.

Even if the e.coli bacterium now travelling through Europe were indeed to represent a new mutation, adherence to the HACCP quality control system as described above would have alerted food operators and/or controllers to the occurrence of contamination. Similarly, had the traceability rules been observed, it would have been easier to identify the source.

In other words, what this recent crisis shows—like the earlier one on dioxin-contaminated animal feed, again in Germany—is that the problem with the European food safety regime lies in its poor implementation—both by the food industry and in the framework of official controls by public authorities.