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Brussels, 20 July 2012
FAQ: Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) - role and achievements
What is RASFF?
Launched in 1979, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is primarily a tool to exchange 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. Measures include: withholding, recalling, seizing or rejecting products. This rapid exchange of information allows all Member States, in real time, to check whether they are also affected and if urgent action is needed. If a risky food or feed product is already on the market and should not be consumed, the Member States' authorities have the power to take an array of emergency measures, including giving direct information to the public.
Why do we need RASFF?
RASFF is a concrete and visible result of European integration. The quick exchange of information among public health authorities linked to RASFF on food and feed related risks ensures coordinated, coherent and simultaneous actions by all RASFF members which benefits consumer safety as a whole.
Consumers can also get access to an online database allowing them to see information relating to RASFF notifications at the latest 24 hours after their transmission into the RASFF network. Thanks to the work carried out by RASFF and depending on different technical and scientific criteria such as nature, seriousness and extent of the risk, public health authorities can take appropriate steps to inform the general public of the nature of the risk, type of food or feed involved and the measures taken to prevent, reduce or eliminate that risk.
How does RASFF work in practice?
First the problem is notified by the member of the network who has 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 through RASFF who in turn immediately transmits to the other members of the network.
Member States use a common template to provide all relevant and useful information including:
Once the information is received, other Member States will check to see if they are concerned. If the product is on their market they will be able to trace it using the information in the notification. They will report back on what they have found and what measures they have taken. In case of products produced in the EU, the Member State where the product originates will also report on the outcome of its investigations into the origin, distribution and cause of the problem identified. This allows other Member States to take rapid action if needed.
Who are the members of the RASFF system?
The RASFF network includes: all EU Member States, 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. Following an agreement that came into force on 1 January 2009, Switzerland is a partial member of the system as far as border rejections of product of animal origin are concerned. Croatia as from 2013 will become a new member of RASFF when they become a full member of the EU.
What are the criteria for sending a notification via RASFF?
Member States must immediately notify the Commission via RASFF when they take action to avoid risk to human health linked to food and feed.
The specific criteria for notification set out in the legislation1 are as follows:
What are the main findings of the RASFF annual report 2011?
In 2011, 9157 notifications in RASFF related to non-compliances with EU food legislation were reported, of which 617 concerned serious risks. Most of the notifications were follow-up (5345) rather than new (3812) notifications. This reflects an increased effectiveness in the system with better targeting and more extensive follow-up. Out of the 3812 original notifications: 3139 concerned food, 361 concerned feed and 312 concerned food contact materials.
These data back our robust EU food safety policy of strengthening border controls for food of non-animal origin. 2011 saw an increase in follow-up notifications. This continuing trend shows that the efficiency of RASFF is ever increasing in providing authorities rapidly with information they need to withdraw unsafe products from the market.
Does the overall increase in notifications mean that our food is less safe?
No. The increase in so-called follow-up notifications means that RASFF is used more intensively to follow up on reported problems. As such, these problems will be solved more rapidly and measures will be put in place to prevent them from happening again. The increase in notifications for products on the market and in particular for border rejections shows that more targeted controls are carried out for products which were previously reported or which are suspect of posing a risk. This actually means that the food consumed by all EU citizens is safer than ever. We are continuously improving our system and our food safety levels.
What is covered by the top notifications?
At what stage is the public informed and who informs them?
Information about RASFF notifications can be consulted through the RASFF Portal database which offers a wide range of search parameters. The RASFF Portal database does however not allow worried consumers to identify in full those notifications concerning products that they should not consume. They should rely on information from the national authorities for that. The public should also be aware that RASFF notifications are issued for specific batches of product where a risk was identified. Often such risk may be present in one batch, but not in the other and may have entered the product despite of the good care taken by the business operator.
Who has what powers to take action when a problem is detected?
When a problem is detected, it is the task of the national food and feed authorities to take the necessary action. This includes any action necessary to immediately eliminate the risk but also to prevent a similar risk reoccurring. A whole range of actions are carried out and reported back through RASFF: withdrawal or recall of the products and their possible destruction, information to the public, re-dispatch to origin etc. If there is a need for emergency (safeguard) measures at EU level, the Commission and Member States can decide upon these measures using a rapid procedure. Such measures are binding with immediate effect on all Member States.
What was the role played by the RASFF in the E-coli outbreak of 2011?
In 2011, the EU experienced one of the most serious food-borne outbreaks in its history with more than 50 casualties, mainly in Germany. Despite its serious consequences, the existence of RASFF, arguably, played an important role in mitigating the impact of the e-coli outbreak.
During that period, a taskforce of specialists worked around the clock and thanks to their tireless work, the food that had caused the outbreak was identified down to the lot number of an imported consignment.
Lessons have been learned: one of the future challenges is how to handle food crisis communication when several actors are involved in order not to create any unnecessary panic. Other lessons relate to improving the way different networks and warning systems interact and focus on emerging risks. With this in mind, iRASFF, an online notification platform was launched in 2011 which will provide to a faster and more efficient RASFF.
Have safety concerns linked to Fukushima and E-coli been resolved?
Fukushima: A substantial review of the existing measures is foreseen before 31 October 2012. Based on the most recent control results (results of sampling controls for the new growing season from March 2012 onwards) will be examined in this review. If the number of prefectures where a testing of all feed and food originating from those prefectures is required before export to the EU can be reduced and if the measures are to be applied to specific feed and foods of concern instead of currently all feed and food (with a few exceptions).
E. coli: The Commission also published today a document on the lessons learned from the 2011 outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O104:H4 in sprouted seeds. The document refers to actions taken to ensure that similar outbreaks are avoided or at least mitigated as regards public health and economic impact. The actions include strengthening of hygiene and control at production and import of (seed) sprouts, training of Member State competent authorities and major trade partners and a revision of safety of all food of non-animal origin. Crisis management and communication procedures are reviewed including internal operational standards and the creation of an EU network of risk communicators for food safety.
RASFF - Breakdown by Member State (country of origin) of top 5 most notified product category/hazard combination
Article 50 of Regulation (EC) N° 178/2002, OJ L 60, 1.3.2002, p. 70–80