Brussels, 16 July 2009
Questions and Answers on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF)
"Keeping An Eye on Your Food" Conference
To celebrate RASFF's 30th birthday, the Commission organises in Brussels (16 -17 July) the high-level international conference "Keeping An Eye on Your Food", with the participation of representatives from more than 80 countries, Member States’ and third countries’ officials and representatives of consumer organisations and food and feed business operators’ associations. A searchable online database of RASFF notifications and a commemorative booklet of the RASFF, explaining the history and evolution of the system, were presented there.
What is RASFF?
The Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is a quick and effective tool for the exchange of information between competent authorities when risks to human health are detected in the food and feed chain and measures -such as withholding, recalling, seizure or rejection of the products concerned- are taken. This quick exchange of information allows all members of the network to verify immediately whether they are also affected by the problem. Whenever the product is already on the market and should not be consumed, the authorities are then in a position to take all urgent measures, including giving direct information to the public, if necessary.
Who are the members of RASFF?
The RASFF network involves the EU Member States, the EEA countries -Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland-, the EFTA Secretariat coordinating the input from the EEA countries, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission as the manager of the system. Since 1 January 2009, Switzerland is a partial member of the system -as far as border rejections of products of animal origin are concerned- after it concluded a veterinary agreement with the EU.
Why do we need RASFF?
The quick exchange of information about food and feed-related risks ensures coherent and simultaneous actions by all RASFF members. This is a major contribution to consumer safety and a concrete and visible result of European integration.
The Commission publishes a weekly overview of notifications so that citizens can follow what is being done in this domain. Consumers will now get access to an online database allowing them to see information relating to RASFF notifications, at the latest 24 hours after their transmission in the RASFF network.
How does it work in practice?
It is of utmost importance that any problem is notified. RASFF members use a template notification form to provide all relevant and useful information such as identification of the product, hazards found, measures taken and traceability information. Once the information is received through the system, other members will verify if they are concerned. If the product is on their market they will be able to trace it using the information they find in the notification. They will report back to the RASFF on what they have found and what measures they have taken.
A food safety incident in 2008 involving the contamination of sunflower oil with mineral oil may serve as an example. It all started with a company in the United Kingdom informing its supplier in France of its finding of abnormal levels of mineral oil in sunflower oil. The French supplier informed the (French) authorities of the finding. The authorities carried out official analyses and informed RASFF of the results. At the same time, FEDIOL, the European association of oil and protein meal industry, informed the European Commission of its findings of mineral oil in several shipments to the EU from Ukraine. The European Commission transmitted this information through RASFF and asked EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) for a quick evaluation of the risk involved. Based on the EFSA evaluation, the Commission recommended to Member States which action to take.
All this information was also circulated via RASFF. Member States started to check the traceability of the sunflower oil shipments including the products that were processed with it, the analytical results of samples of the products found and the measures taken. By 1 July 2008, 70 notifications with additional information were transmitted and the European Commission's RASFF team received and sent out 496 e-mails about this incident between 28 April and 1 July 2008.
What are the notification criteria?
The criteria for notification to RASFF are given in article 50 of Regulation (EC) N° 178/2002 .
Whenever a member of the network has any information relating to the existence of a serious direct or indirect risk to human health deriving from food or feed, this information is immediately notified to the Commission under the RASFF. The Commission immediately transmits this information to the members of the network.
Article 50.3 of the Regulation gives further criteria for when a RASFF notification is required.
Without prejudice to other Community legislation, the Member States shall immediately notify the Commission under the rapid alert system of:
(a) any measure they adopt which is aimed at restricting the placing on the market or forcing the withdrawal from the market or the recall of food or feed in order to protect human health and requiring rapid action;
(b) any recommendation or agreement with professional operators which is aimed, on a voluntary or obligatory basis, at preventing, limiting or imposing specific conditions on the placing on the market or the eventual use of food or feed on account of a serious risk to human health requiring rapid action;
(c) any rejection, related to a direct or indirect risk to human health, of a batch, container or cargo of food or feed by a competent authority at a border post within the European Union.
What are the main findings of the 2008 RASFF annual report?
The total number of notifications (original notifications + follow-up notifications) transmitted has slightly decreased. There was a slight increase of original notifications because more border rejections were transmitted. The follow-up to border rejections decreased significantly because the Commission asked members of the system to report only when they lift reinforced checks at the border, not when they are set up, because such checks are considered to be set up automatically after a RASFF notification.
Alerts and their follow-up actions have decreased significantly because of a better and stricter classification of alert notifications. From 2008, an alert status is given only when a serious risk is identified in a product on the market. It is precisely in such a situation that rapid action is required. Alerts are considered to be the "core business" of RASFF.
The report highlights a number of issues, among others:
The decreasing trend on notifications for mycotoxins in food is inversed. The increased findings of contamination of cereal products are especially worrying.
A dioxin contamination of feed led to a large scale trace-and-recall of Irish pork worldwide. RASFF was intensively and successfully used to transmit information allowing authorities to take swift and appropriate actions.
An overview is given of notifications concerning unauthorised genetically modified food or feed and measures that were taken.
From 2008, food poisonings are identified explicitly as a trigger for a RASFF notification. This allowed an overview of the cases reported.
An account is given of the contamination incident of mineral oil in sunflower oil from Ukraine giving details on how the Commission acted to protect the EU market from these contaminated products.
Does the decrease in alert notifications show that our food is getting safer?
Not necessarily. It only indicates that RASFF now focuses better on the more important problems. Before, alert notifications were issued when a risk was found and the product was on the market. But now, the risk is evaluated and only for serious risks an alert is raised, otherwise, the notification becomes an "information notification". The number of market notifications in 2008 (alert + information notifications) remained stable compared to 2007.