Figures indicate that now it is more efficient than it has ever been. The system's annual report for 2008, which is being released today, notes that the number of alert notifications in 2008 was reduced by almost half compared to 2007. The total number of notifications remained stable at around 7,000. This does not mean that there were fewer problems to report in 2008. It rather indicates that the system's contributors now focus better on the risks and only classify them under "alert notifications" if they are considered "serious" and the product is circulating on the market. That is also when rapid action is required from Member States to mitigate the risk. In 2008, there were 528 alerts out of a total of about 3,000 notifications. The Commission also received about 4,000 follow-up notifications which it transmitted to all Member States.
EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, addressing the international RASFF conference "Keeping An Eye on Your Food" today, said: "The Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed is a crucial tool in our efforts to ensure food safety in Europe. It has grown over a period of 30 years into a highly valued instrument used by its operators to exchange information, in real-time, about actions they have taken to ensure food and feed safety. Indeed, RASFF is one of the great success stories of the EU’s integrated approach to food safety, using to maximum effect the power of communication and collaboration."
Important food safety incidents
In 2008, RASFF was again put to the test in some of the most significant food safety incidents of the recent years. Among other cases, mineral oil was discovered in sunflower oil from Ukraine (39 countries concerned, 99 follow-up notifications), melamine was found in foods from China (incident with global impact, 84 RASFF notifications and 101 follow-up notifications) and dioxins were traced in pork from Ireland (54 countries concerned and 230 follow-up notifications).
In each of these cases, RASFF helped co-ordinate the actions of Member States and thus minimized the consequences of the contamination incidents. The melamine case was an excellent example of RASFF linking in with a global issue and exchanging information with the World Health Organisation's International Food Safety Authorities Network INFOSAN.
Making imports safer
More than four out of every 10 notifications in 2008 were about products rejected at the EU border due to a risk to food safety. When such a product is identified, RASFF informs the third country in question, in order to prevent a recurrence of the problem. In 2008, 2,342 information notes were transmitted to third countries about hazardous products originating in their territory. When a serious and persistent problem is detected, the Commission sends a letter to the national authorities of the third country concerned, so that they implement corrective measures such as delisting establishments, blocking exports or intensifying controls.
Alerts, Information and Border Rejections
The RASFF annual report breaks down the overall number of notifications in 2008 into alert (528), information (1,138) and border rejection (1,377) notifications. Alert notifications are sent when the food or feed presenting a serious risk is already on the market and immediate action is required. The majority (62%) of alert notifications in 2008 related to products originating in the EU, and most of these problems were detected by controls carried out on the market. Under this category of notifications, among the most frequently reported risks found in food or feed were potentially pathogenic micro-organisms, heavy metals and mycotoxins.
Information notifications are sent when a risk has been identified but immediate action by other Member States is not necessary. In 2008, most information notifications (54%) concerned products originating in third countries. Under this category of notifications, among the most frequently reported risks were potentially pathogenic micro-organisms, pesticide residues and food additives.
In 2008, a new type of notification was added: border rejections. Before, these were part of the information notifications. These are notifications about products that were refused entry into the Community and were given another destination or were destroyed. Fifty-six percent (56%) of border rejections concerned products refused entry because of too high levels of mycotoxins.
What RASFF does
RASFF enables the quick and effective exchange of information between Member States and the Commission when risks to human health are detected in the food and feed chain. All Members of the RASFF (EU-27, Commission, EFSA and Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) have a round-the-clock service to ensure that urgent notifications are sent, received and responded to in the shortest time possible. Thanks to RASFF, many food safety risks have been averted before they could do any harm to consumers.