Food Safety - Defining Hazardous Food in Europe

December 09, 2015| Von Dr. Axel Horster | General Liability | English

Region: Europe

Some 420,000 people die every year as a result of foodborne diseases, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization. Nearly 1 in 10 people fall ill after consuming contaminated food. Despite widespread confidence in food retailers and manufacturers, media reports continually remind us that we cannot always rely on ourselves to determine what’s safe to buy. For the insurance industry, understanding the food hazards that warrant product recalls or compensation is important.

By the end of November, warnings for 85 food products in Germany had been issued since 2012 by the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety via the agency’s online portal ( - 51 were from this year.

Whereas the number of warnings are unlikely to appear alarming when compared to the food industry’s turnover (EUR165 billion in Germany and EUR1,048 billion for Europe), it’s important to note they may have required action in more than one EU country.

Every national food safety authority in the EU can report alerts to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). Every EU country is informed of the alert once it has been confirmed and classified. In 2014 the RASFF issued 3,157 new cases, of which 25% (751) were in the highest category, “alert” - sent out when food, feed or materials that come into contact with food, present a serious risk to human health, are on the market and a rapid response is required by the country.

So where exactly do the dangers lurk?

In most cases food hazards involve pathogenic micro-organisms and biocontaminants resulting from biological activity, the improper composition of supplements or additives in dietetic food.

  • Well-known pathogenic micro-organisms shigatoxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and salmonella are among the leading causes of food recalls.

    • There was a modest decrease in STEC notifications in 2014. The critical values were exceeded mostly in meat, bivalve mollusks and milk products.1
    • Salmonella notifications showed a modest decrease. As in previous years, poultry and feed material remain the most reported categories.2 More microbial pollution have been connected with listeria monocytogenes in fish and milk products; with norovirus in oysters, clams and frozen raspberries; and with hepatitis A in frozen berries.

  • Most notifications related to biocontaminants were connected to histamines typically formed as a result of spoilage in fresh or frozen fish, and to tropane alkaloids found in baby food products. Thornapple seeds (datura) are especially known for their high tropane-alkaloid levels. Datura is widely distributed in temperate and tropical regions and the size of the seeds allows unintended blending with linseed, soybean, millet, sunflower and buckwheat.
  • Unauthorised additives in dietetic foods or novel food and food supplements caused continued health concerns. In some cases concentrations exceeded the maximum permissible value, in other cases substances had no authorization at all or were not properly labeled. These products are often directly ordered online in countries such as the U.S. where availability is unrestricted. The same applies to plant extracts from China or unlabeled pharmaceuticals such as lithium or tetrahydrocanabinol (THC).
  • Heavy metals - such as arsenic, lead, cadmium or mercury - enter the food chain via feed consumption or pollution of the seas or contact materials (package or wrapping). Proof of arsenic and lead was found in several food additives.3 High concentrations of cadmium were reported for squid and cuttlefish. A recent EFSA study showed the relevance of the total consumption: 3% of the average intake came from water mollusks, 16% from vegetables.4 Dangerously high mercury levels were attributed to predatory species, such as swordfish and tuna.
  • The food protection authorities found 138 different pesticide residues; feed products were affected in only a few cases. Contamination tended to be a result of unrestricted use of pesticides in non-EU countries. A noticeably large number of pesticides banned in the EU entered the market as food.
  • Overall, about 10% of all notifications in 2014 affected feed. Pathogenic micro-organisms (salmonella) were among the most frequent agents, followed by mycotoxins, unauthorized genetically modified feed and industrial contaminants (dioxin and dioxin-like PCB).


The food hazards in the 2014 RASFF annual report cover well-known issues. But is this the kind of information customers are looking for? Yes and no. Removing unsafe food and feed products from the market and tracking the causes is a good thing, but it’s important to also note that the alert system is based on individual cases. The RASFF’s number of notifications appears small and its findings cannot be generalized. The data doesn’t necessarily translate into adverse selection by consumers or risk managers.

The coordinated efforts of national authorities using standard operating procedures (SOP) in the RASFF framework appear to be more significant. With the 10 SOPs that were completed and published in 2014, EU countries agreed on benchmarks for future food safety regulation and on a definition of “hazardous food”.5 These standards should be helpful when negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the USA.

For more on food safety, read Ross Campbell’s blog, What’s Cooking? Campaigning for Safer Food.

  1. Guidance regarding food contaminated with STEC (Art. 14 (EC) No 178/2002) is currently under discussion with Member States.
  2. Others are pet food, meat, fruits/vegetables, herbs/spices, nuts/seeds.
  3. Arsenic in trisodium citrate E 331. Lead in E 153 - vegetable carbon.


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