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There's no such a thing as zero risk

An interview with Anja Tittes and Prof. Dr. Nöhle

Anja Tittes and Prof. Ulrich Nöhle talk about food safety in Germany, the mechanisms in place in the event of a crisis and the right information policy.

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Eating is all about enjoyment. But what's the situation with food safety in Germany?

Tittes: Food is very safe in Germany, in part thanks to the official inspections that are performed. And the companies mostly live up to their obligations too, for example in terms of self-monitoring.

Nöhle: I can corroborate that - we have never had so much safe food, we are living longer, and we have never had it so good ...

... and yet there are food scandals again and again - how is that possible?

Nöhle: Because there is unfortunately no such thing as zero risk. Some instances of unsafe food are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, for example. Let's look at the EHEC case. It all started with fenugreek seeds from Egypt that were contaminated with bacteria. These were used to grow sprouts in the Netherlands, and these were then spread throughout the supply chain. In addition, food is sometimes wilfully contaminated as part of criminal activities, as demonstrated by the fipronil scandal, in which an insecticide was added to an agent used to clean stables even though it was not approved for this.

Tittes: EHEC was an unforeseeable and above all a regrettableepisode that made a lot of people ill. When somethinglike this happens, swift action has to be taken. Sprout growersnow need to first be approved, for example.

So the government's reaction mechanisms do work in the event of a crisis?

Tittes: I do see room for improvement in the way that the regulatory authorities in various areas work together. A top priority is bringing databases together. It's no good if authorities are forced to remain tight-lipped because the data protection provisions stipulate that they may not share information with another authority. The swift exchange of information is essential for consumer protection, but we are still stuck with structures that date back to the 1990s ...

Nöhle: ... if not the 1980s or 1970s! Global food retail and online retail mean there is more and more food available in the market. This calls for centralised structures in order for food to be monitored efficiently. Federalism has become completely outdated in the food industry

I see room for improvement in the way that the regulatory authorities work together, and in particular regarding bringing databases together.

Anja Tittes

Can you go into more detail here?

Nöhle: Take sampling: at present, each inspector takes a similar sample in the case of a suspect food. This is inefficient and requires a lot of human resources and analysis capacity. What we need is a centralised sampling system. This would take the strain off the inspectors, who could then be used elsewhere, for example for company inspections, which are very time-consuming.

Tittes: That would be ideal! We have a significant lack of staff, so only around 40 per cent of the risk-based inspections can be performed. And this situation has been silently accepted for years. It's obvious to us that we need more staff nationwide.

Nöhle: Just to add to that, food safety is the responsibility of those who distribute the food, i.e. the producers and the traders! They have to make sure the products are of impeccable quality - the official inspections are only designed to monitor that this is the case.

Talking of trade, what role does this sector play in food safety?

Nöhle: The trading sector has a duty of care too, just with a different focus: the trading sector doesn't produce, it distributes. It therefore has to ensure that food is not subsequently exposed to any external factors when sold or transported.

Tittes: Minimum shelf lives and the cold chain have to be checked too, for example. It is our experience that this works well. The trading sector is not the primary problem within the food chain.

The media soon talk up the slightest deviation from limit values as a scandal, even if it falls short of any hazard.

Prof. Dr Ulrich Nöhle

Moving on to a different topic, the authorities are often accused of being too slow to inform the consumers in the event of a food scandal. Is this a justified criticism?

Tittes: I'm a huge proponent of the approach of scientifically analysing suspected cases before worrying the consumers. Information should only be released following analysis, and should be carefully dosed and targeted. Anything else is tantamount to panic-mongering.

Nöhle: It's in the nature of the media to turn things into a scandal - the slightest deviation from limit values and even readings below such thresholds are soon talked up as a scandal. In such cases, I can only recommend that people read and quote the statements published by Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which now responds very quickly to incidents.

Where do you think there is stillroom for improvement in the area of food safety?

Nöhle: In terms of hygiene in the kitchen! Being out of the home all the time, we have essentially forgotten how to cook. For example, a salad might be prepared on a chopping board that was previously used to cut up raw chicken. We need to learn how to handle food proficiently again.

Tittes: I absolutely agree. In addition to facilitating better cooperation among the authorities and increasing the number of food inspectors, we need to help the consumers handle food correctly.

Copyright picture: Creative Commons picture by Frans Persoon

Clara Salarich-Ortega

Information about the author

Clara Salarich-Ortega works as Manager EU Affairs in the Representative Office of METRO AG in Brussels clara.salarich@metro.de