"I am pleased to see that national authorities are fully aware of the risks posed to consumers by this dangerous bacteria," David Byrne, the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection said. "We should not forget that VTEC and other food-borne pathogens are a major health concern. Everyone involved in food production and preparation has to play their part in keeping this bacteria and the damage it can do under control. If proper hygiene standards are applied from the farm right through to the plate, the risk of disease due to this type of food poisoning can be greatly reduced. The report identifies interesting examples of good practices, and gives us useful ideas for future action to improve controls at European level. The new legislation we have proposed on food hygiene and zoonotic diseases offers the right framework for implementing many of these improvements. In the meantime national authorities are of course well-advised to look at the best practices identified and to start applying them wherever possible."
Infections caused by VTEC have, over the past twenty years, been a cause of severe food poisoning cases, including some high profile outbreaks that have caused fatalities. A wide variety of foodstuffs have been implicated, including foods of animal origin, fruits and raw salads/peeled vegetables. The report finds that the national authorities in the countries that were visited have made considerable efforts to respond to the challenges posed by VTEC contamination. But the approach followed in monitoring and controlling outbreaks in both the animal and human populations varies considerably from country to country. As with other food-borne pathogens, the real prevalence of VTEC in humans appears to be generally under-estimated.
As part of its inspection programme for 2001 the Food and Veterinary Office carried out visits to Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden to review the epidemiology of VTEC infections and the monitoring and control systems in place in the red meat and milk sector. These countries were selected so as to obtain an overview of the different control systems and food practices in the EU.
The objective was notably to identify 'best practices' in VTEC control and to collect information on the occurrence of VTEC infections in the population as a basis for consumer information and further legislative and other actions at EU level.
The FVO report urges the wider adoption of "best practices" implemented by some Member States, as well as those outlined in last year's report of the competent Scientific Committee on Food-Borne Zoonoses. The FVO notably points to the need for co-ordinated research into the prevalence of VTEC at the different stages of the food production chain. The Office recommends joint action by the European Commission and the Member States to develop guidelines for a more consistent approach to the detection, notification, prevention, control and investigation of VTEC outbreaks in the animal and human populations.
Improved communication between all parts of the food chain is considered important in creating better controls over food-borne pathogens. High priority should also be given to better co-operation between human health and veterinary services at national level, possibly by setting up a single national service to carry out epidemiological studies and initiate the proper actions in case of zoonotic outbreaks, including VTEC. The report further recommends that national authorities should inform consumers of the risks posed by VTEC and of what action they can take to avoid and control the infection. Finally, the development of rapid, accurate, analytical methods for detection of VTEC would help in its monitoring and elimination from the food chain.
FVO inspectors spent a week in each country, meeting with competent national authorities, visiting laboratories involved in VTEC research and performing on-the-spot inspections of farms and processing plants in the meat and diary sector.
There is currently no specific EU legislation prescribing what kind of controls national authorities should implement with respect to E. coli contamination in the food chain. Existing legislation however does set out hygiene rules for milk and meat production that if properly applied should provide adequate protection against food contamination. As announced in its White Paper on Food Safety the European Commission is working on improving the current legislative rules to enhance the protection of consumer safety.
A proposal for a new framework Directive on zoonoses, presented in August this year is under discussion in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. This framework legislation foresees the possibility to set harmonized targets at EU level for reducing the risk of E. coli contamination. The European Parliament and the Council are also discussing proposals for an overhaul of existing hygiene regulations put forward by the Commission in July 2000.
These proposals introduce a comprehensive hygiene regime covering food in all sectors, from the farm to the table, as a substitute for the existing patchwork of rules for specific sectors and types of produce. They make food producers, including farmers, primarily responsible for hygiene and food safety, with the help of programmes for self-checking and modern hazard control techniques. This new legislation also contributes to a better control of VTEC.
The full report is available at: