One of the key functions for any food safety authority is to manage monitoring programmes designed to sample foods and test them for a wide range of microbiological and chemical contaminants. This type of surveillance remains one of the most reliable ways to verify the safety of the food we eat and to get early warning of emerging public health threats. It is also a valuable deterrent to any unscrupulous individuals who might consider flouting food safety rules to make a quick profit from contaminated products. The higher the chance of being caught the less the temptation to cut corners.
Unfortunately, food monitoring programmes rarely make the news unless they uncover a problem – the 2013 horsemeat scandal being a typical example. A report stating that everything is absolutely fine is not what most editors are looking for. We at Food Safety Watch are just as guilty as the mainstream media in this respect. For instance, back in April the Canadian Food Inspection Agency published a surveillance report on foodborne pathogens in leafy green vegetables. This found that more than 99.9% of the samples tested contained no detectable pathogens at all. This is obviously good news for consumers, but it isn’t very exciting and we didn’t run the story. This week we have tried to make amends by featuring an EFSA report on pesticide residue monitoring, which reveals a similarly positive picture. At least 97.5% of the almost 80,000 samples tested across the EU in 2011 complied with maximum permitted levels for residues and no serious health threats were uncovered. This is clearly welcome news, but I suspect that any related press reports will focus on the 2.5% of samples that did not comply with the rules.
The real story here is how important this kind of surveillance is. In many European countries budgets for routine food sampling are under pressure and funding for the laboratories needed to conduct the tests is being cut. It’s an easy target for politicians looking to save some public money and since it’s an activity that doesn’t often generate headlines, perhaps no one will notice if we do less of it. Surely the food industry can police itself and take on some of the costs? Perhaps, but industry and government have differing agendas. Industry has a vested interest in protecting its customers, but why should it conduct testing for the benefit of anyone else? One consequence of less publicly funded food contaminant monitoring by national enforcement authorities is a greater risk of not detecting serious problems in time to prevent threats to health. Like other public services that have been sacrificed to save money, the importance of this one may only become apparent when it is too late.