Record tally of food safety alerts in EU

By Nikki Tait in Brussels

Published: July 24 2008 03:00 | Last updated: July 24 2008 03:00


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Contaminated wheat gluten, salmonella-infected alfalfa and mercury-laced fish all contributed to a record number of food safety warnings in the European Union last year.

Officials said yesterday that there were 7,354 alerts and notifications under the European warning system for food and feed products - up by more than 8 per cent from the 6,594 figure registered in the previous year.

The 2007 result reversed the trend seen in 2006, when warnings declined.

The increase was driven partly by a 13.5 per cent rise in additional information notifications, giving countries more detail about suspect products that had yet to reach their markets. But core alerts also rose by 4.5 per cent to 953 last year, just shy of the record 959 figures seen two years ago.

Even so, Androulla Vassiliou, the health commissioner, denied that there were grounds for heightened consumer concern. "I believe the fact that notifications are increasing means our system is working well and we can feel more secure," she claimed.

The product category that saw most alerts was fish, accounting for more than a fifth of the total. One of the problems was an increase in notifications for mercury, with swordfish and shark being vulnerable to breaches in the legal limit. By contrast, notifications involving potentially carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which result from contaminated waters or food preparation methods, dec-lined year-on-year, although the level remains higher than in the early 2000s.

Long-running concern over Iranian pistachio nuts, in which officials have been warning of aflatoxins, a product of moulds that can cause cancer, also became less severe. Yesterday's rep-ort said that there were 126 notifications last year, down from 457 two years ago.

China has already been identified as the country of origin for more than half the non-food products taken off shop shelves for safety reasons in Europe last year. Many of these products were toys, child care items and electrical goods.

But the number of safety notifications on Chinese products increased "significantly", and about 12 per cent of total notifications centred on products of Chinese origin. These ranged from problems with the residues of veterinary medical products to excessive additives in frozen fish.

The report detailed one incident in which melamine, an industrial chemical, had been fraudulently added to wheat gluten, with the aim of enhancing its apparent protein content. All the contaminated batches were traced back to the two companies in China. The gluten was subsequently used in the production of pet food and led to sickness and death among animals in the US. Although there was no evidence of the product coming into the EU, member states were alerted.


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