Like the United States, European consumers get a large proportion of their food from distant suppliers, either from within Europe itself or from around the world. This supply chain creates numerous vulnerabilities that terrorists can exploit.
Europe’s first line of defense is an EU-wide network of rapid-alert systems that are managed by national governments’ customs and food inspection services. These systems alert the European Commission and other member states whenever they detect threats to the food supply or to public health. Threats may come from biological and chemical agent attacks or from more mundane problems, such as spoiled or substandard products. The system is designed to catch contaminated or substandard food whether shipped across Europe or imported from outside the EU.
The Commission posts weekly reports detailing which products were blocked and why, as well as identifying the company and country of origin of each item. The reports illustrate how vulnerable even the most mundane products are to problems as they are moved around the world or between neighboring countries. For instance, among the shipments seized in one week last December was a consignment of blueberry juice concentrate found to contain excessive radioactivity as it entered Ireland from the Netherlands. The juice had been made in Austria with Polish fruit. And in early January 2008, Finnish inspectors halted imports of grape seed extract capsules from China because they contained an unauthorized artificial coloring.
The Commission says it wants to launch a worldwide rapid-alert system for food safety, by encouraging nonmember countries to set up their own rapid-alert systems, which could be connected to the EU’s system. But the EU’s existing rapid-alert network has come under criticism from all sides.
One problem is that individual countries’ inspection services do not apply standard safety criteria when analyzing products, says Custaud. He says the process is sufficiently rigorous in most countries in northwestern Europe, but countries in Southern and Eastern Europe are more lax.
Another criticism is that the system is reactive. Food-safety alerts often come from consumers or distributors, who then contact government agencies, which then test suspect products and decide whether to withdraw them from the market.
The Commission’s Benoliel says, “Of course, it is reactive. If we knew in advance that something was a problem, we could take the adequate preventive measures.”
She further defends the approach, saying, “But it does work very quickly, and once a [suspect] product has been detected in one member state, it can be withdrawn across the whole Union.”
Industry also sees flaws in the system. It wants the Commission to focus more on standardizing its food-alert process and on ensuring that staff who must implement it receive adequate training.
Currently, officials do not consult with companies when their products are caught in the system, and the process is too public, says Beate Kettlitz, director for Food Policy, Science, and Research and Development at the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries, the EU’s main food lobby.
“Those concerned should be involved at the first stage” so that they can remedy the problem, says Kettlitz. She complains that companies’ reputations are affected “whenever each tiny thing is found out.”
Kettlitz notes that “European public perception of food safety is a very, very sensitive issue, and we do not want to scare them. We do not want to give any impression that something is not safe.”
The EU has also announced a plan to streamline customs clearance for all goods while tightening control over supply chains with a new electronic customs system, inspired by the U.S. Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) supply-chain security program.
The EU plans to launch a sophisticated computer-based risk-assessment system for all imported products including foodstuffs by July 2009. It is designed to improve screening and would enable computer systems in each of the 27 member states’ customs administrations to communicate with each other and with the Commission’s systems in real time.
The Commission is also developing a prearrival and predeparture notification system, enabling authorities to run computerized risk assessments on each shipment almost instantaneously. To participate, a company must win EU accreditation as an Authorized Economic Operator (AEO). Accreditation is earned by meeting criteria that include stringent internal controls, as well as clean security and safety records.
“Various authorities, including customs, will be monitoring the success and transparency of AEO over the coming years, as they hope to use this tool to ensure compliance with issues like environmental standards and food-safety standards,” says Michel de Jong, senior manager in security advisory services at Ernst & Young in the Netherlands.
In another initiative, the European Commission is pushing for the creation of a European Bio-Network to act as an advisory structure involving scientific researchers, business, security agencies, and civil protection authorities. European trade associations are calling for EU-wide standards on detecting and testing for pathogens, as well as measures to improve cooperation between industry and government. The commission plans to include the submissions in a white paper in the second quarter of 2008.
Despite their skepticism, industry representatives and analysts say the bioterrorism consultation process is a step in the right direction.