Brussels, 10 September 2010
FAQ: Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed : role and achievements
What is RASFF?
Launched in 1979, the rapid alert system for food and feed (RASFF) is primarily a tool for exchange of information between competent authorities on consignments of food and feed in cases where a risk to human health has been identified and measures have been taken, such as withholding, recalling, seizure or rejection of the products concerned. This quick exchange of information allows all Member States 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 Member States' authorities are then in a position to take all urgent measures, including giving direct information to the public, if necessary.
Why do we need RASFF?
The rapid alert system is a concrete and visible result of European integration. The quick exchange of information about food and feed related risks ensures coherent and simultaneous actions by all Member States. This is a major contribution to consumer safety.
The publication of notifications through the RASFF portal database makes consumers aware that we are active in this domain. Consumers can get access to an online database allowing them to see information relating to RASFF notifications the latest 24 hours after their transmission in the RASFF network.
How does it work in practice?
It is foremost important that the problem is notified. A template exists that Member States use to provide all relevant and useful information such as identification of the product, hazards found, measures taken and traceability information of the product. Once the information received through the system, other Member States 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. In case of products produced in EU, the Member State of origin will also report to RASFF the outcome of its investigations into the origin and distribution of the product and the cause of the problem identified. This allows other Member States to take rapid action if required.
What are the criteria for notification to the RASFF?
The criteria for notification to the RASFF are given in article 50 of Regulation (EC) N° 178/20021.
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:
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;
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;
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.
Who are the members of the RASFF system?
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 Commission as the manager of the system. Since 1 January 2009, Switzerland is partial member of the system as far as concerns border rejections of product of animal origin after they concluded an agreement with the EU eliminating the borders controls between the EU and Switzerland for these products.
What are the main findings of the RASFF annual report 2009?
The total number of notifications (original notifications + follow-up notifications) transmitted has increased significantly. There was a moderate increase of original notifications for alert, information and border rejections. Only follow-up to alerts decreased slightly but follow-up to border rejections and especially to information notifications increased remarkably. This shows that control authorities from Member States have increased their use of RASFF in sharing information about food safety problems that did not require rapid action, which nonetheless benefits remedying the shortcomings found.
The report highlights a number of issues, among others:
Member States are finding and reporting more risks related to allergens in food resulting in better protection of people suffering from allergies which can sometimes be life-threatening.
There was a significant decrease in notifications on aflatoxins in all food categories, except in feed materials and pet food where an increase was observed.
The number of RASFF notifications on genetically modified food and feed increased substantially in 2009. A large number of notifications concerned the unauthorised linseed FP967, first detected in Europe in 2009, in a substantial number of shiploads imported into the EU from Canada.
The notifications through RASFF regarding pesticide residues in plant products from third countries provided valuable data to decide on reinforced import controls according Regulation (EC) No 669/2009.
More findings were reported on forbidden nitrofurans in shrimps from Bangladesh and India. Nitrofurans are antibiotics used for treatment of shrimps but are forbidden in the EU because of their carcinogenicity.
There was a rise in notifications for unauthorised substances in food supplements. Products sold as food supplements, often through the internet, contained medicinal substances that should not be taken without prescription.
There were 54 notifications where a food poisoning was the basis for an investigation leading to a RASFF notification. Norovirus outbreaks and histamine poisoning were the most reported but most widespread were undoubtedly the Salmonellosis outbreaks. An outbreak of hepatitis A required international cooperation. Outbreaks of hepatitis A were reported in France and the Netherlands after an initial communication of Australia through INFOSAN, the food safety authorities’ network of the World Health Organisation.
Does the increase in overall notifications signify that our food is less safe?
No. The most significant increase happened for so-called follow-up notifications. This means that RASFF is used more intensively to follow up on reported problems. As a consequence, these problems will be solved more rapidly and measures will be put in place to prevent them from happening again.
OJ L 60, 1.3.2002, p. 70–80