The issue of food safety has progressively grown in importance for the European Union as witnessed by the host of specific regulations and guidelines that have been introduced alongside the EU regulations contained in the hygiene package (Regulation EC no.852, 853, 854 and 882/2004 and subsequent amendments).
Food safety not only provides consumers with answers and correct information, but also helps to rationalise intervention in regional planning and official inspections, thus making them more effective and improving the benefit-cost ratio (BCR).
Food safety must be based on a "complete and integrated approach", which means that it must encompass the entire food supply chain (from animal feed to human food). Consequently Regulation (EC) no. 178/2002 has laid down the general requirements for food law, set up a European Food Safety Authority and laid down procedures in matters of food safety, establishing control of the production supply chain as its top priority.
The concept "from field to fork" has encouraged tighter cooperation between the various sectors of the food supply chain and is embodied in the three-year plan for Food Safety, which funds and develops a series of coordinated actions (Note 1)
Special focus is being given to the following objectives:
- surveillance and monitoring systems that provide reliable data on animal health and food contamination (e.g. a specific monitoring and control plan is underway in businesses and in natural banks that provide shellfish);
- surveillance and monitoring systems that provide reliable data on the prevalence of infection in humans; implementation of protocols that acquire information in the event of food contamination so that the public can be informed effectively;
- introduction of procedures that improve catering in schools, care-homes and hospitals, as well as information/communications on correct and healthy lifestyles and food (L.R. 6/2002);
- a database that planning and control bodies (SIVE and SIAN-net) can use to share information and manage data on operators that produce, process, distribute and administer food, as well as surveillance and inspection;
- training programmes for the professionals that work in the Prevention Departments and in the bodies that carry out official analysis.
The main objectives regarding animal health are to eradicate traditional diseases and to prevent new ones emerging. Special attention has been placed on animal traceability, developing biosafety protocols on animal farms, ensuring the correct use of veterinary medication, animal welfare, and promoting the correct management and disposal of animal by-products.
Given the varied epidemiological situation throughout the EU, the introduction of a European single market which envisages free movement of animals and animal products means that health standards need to be harmonised throughout the EU by applying uniform policies that can control and eradicate infections. These policies will have major repercussions on animal economics and public health.
Routine activities include cleaning-up livestock farms, which involves policies for controlling bovine tuberculosis, bovine brucellosis, sheep and goat brucellosis, enzootic bovine leucosis and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis.
The key to establishing an epidemiological surveillance network is the region's livestock registry database (BDR), which is connected via a real-time web-link with the national database (BDN) in Teramo, in the Abruzzo region.
This system enables the region to manage all the information on health, animal husbandry and animal economics, as well as the Common Agricultural Policy support schemes it needs for its regional plans. The optimisation of the BDR is also a key feature of the animal and animal by-product traceability system (Field-to-Fork), which complies with EU requirements and end-consumer needs.
As regards controls on Veneto's livestock farms and abattoirs, which ensure standards on cattle traceability and identification are observed, there has been a consistent decline in irregularities: in 2008 irregularities in livestock farms were 3% with 0% in abattoirs, which has been the case since 2004. (Figure 11.2.1)
Inspections for infectious diseases
In recent years, the European Union has concentrated on monitoring and controlling zoonoses, i.e. diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
Two European laws (Directive 2003/99/EC and Regulation (EC) no. 2160/2003 plus subsequent amendments and integrations) lay down regulations for controlling the main zoonoses that affect livestock farms, and thus humans, including tuberculosis, brucellosis and salmonellosis. Targets have also been set to reduce the prevalence of zoonotic agents in certain animal populations through national control plans. These plans are put into action across the region by the Veterinary Services of the Az-ULSS, the local health authorities.
Regione Veneto has introduced a specific plan (Note 2)
and, thanks to this plan's controls, over recent years no diseases have been found in any of the region's provinces; consequently Veneto has been declared officially free of bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and leucosis in that the percentage of infected cattle farms has been consistently below 0.1%, the figures envisaged by Community law.
In compliance with Community requirements, in 2002 Regione Veneto adopted a "Plan for the introduction of controls on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) in Regione Veneto (BSE, i.e. mad-cow disease, and Scrapie in sheep and goats)" (Note 3)
. In the last four years, no incidences of illness have been encountered in the 30,000-plus sample controls that are carried out annually.
In 2002 Italy introduced a National Scrapie Plan whereby quick tests were carried out on sheep and goats aged over 18-months that were regularly slaughtered, had died or showed symptoms.
As Veneto runs a high risk of the introduction and spread of avian flu, it undergoes both national and regional monitoring plans which involve vets taking samples from wild birds and from poultry on both commercial (on the basis of risk assessment) and rural farms.
In 2007, more than one thousand livestock farms were inspected but none of them had any sign of illness, which suggests that there is no risk of this dangerous illness.
Improving quality of life has led, especially in industrialised countries, to greater care being taken of "income animals"; they are no longer treated solely as a source of services and nutrition as today the ethology and physiology specific to each breed are also being taken into due consideration. The public has become aware that we do not only have to look after animal health and hygiene, but also to take greater care of their biological needs, behavioural patterns and general welfare.
In recent years, society's greater awareness and sensibility towards animals has led national and international institutions to pass laws that recognise the dignity of animals.
Human behaviour towards animals, and the ensuing legislation, is geared towards safeguarding their welfare and protecting their rights.
The Veterinary Services of the Local Health Authorities conduct inspections on livestock farms to check that animal welfare standards are met, in accordance with local plans based on Italy's National Animal Welfare Plan. Since August 2008 checks at regional level have been based on ministerial check-lists included in the national plan. (Table 11.2.1)
Live bivalve shellfish must come from production areas classified in accordance with Regulation (EC) no. 854/2004 if they are to be deemed fit for human consumption: In Veneto, the Veterinary Services of the Local Health Authorities, which monitor a total of 101 areas, issue the necessary registration documents. (Table 11.2.2)
In 2007, almost 40,000 tonnes of shellfish were produced, yet only 18 shellfish-culture licences were suspended for microbiological breaches and 5 for biotoxicological breaches, a notable fall on 2006 when 20 and 23 licences respectively were suspended.
Official inspections on food and drink aim to ensure that products come up to standard in order to prevent risks to public health, protect consumer interests and ensure transactions are above board.
The inspections cover both Italian and foreign products that are sold throughout the country, as well as those destined for export. Official inspections cover all phases of production, processing, storage, transport, sale and administration. They encompass making checks, taking samples, conducting laboratory analysis, inspecting hygiene and personnel, examining hand-written and printed documents, as well as a company's inspection systems and their results (Note 4)
The Ministry of Health is responsible for planning, setting policy, and coordinating these official inspections. The regional government health department is responsible for coordination, while inspections on the production, sale and administration of food and drink fall mainly to the municipal councils, which operate through the Food and Nutrition Hygiene Services (S.I.A.N.) and Veterinary Services (S.V.) at the Prevention Departments of the Local Health Authorities. Laboratory analysis is conducted by Italy's Regional Environmental Protection Agencies (A.R.P.A.) and its Experimental Zoo-Prophylactic Institutes (I.Z.S.).
In Italy, Presidential Decree D.P.R. of 14 July 1995 directs and coordinates Regions and Provinces regarding harmonised criteria for the drafting of official inspection schemes for food and drink.
In accordance with this decree, autonomous regions and provinces draw up plans to define the nature and the frequency of their inspections, which are to become a regular part of production, packaging, administering and selling.
The inspections cover:
- primary producers: premises that only carry out primary production and produce unprocessed food products for human consumption (e.g. farm businesses dealing with primary production, livestock, poultry, vineyards, bees, etc.);
- producers and packagers: premises where food is produced, processed and/or packaged, but not sold retail;
- wholesale distribution: this category includes distribution activities before retail sale, (e.g. import, wholesale or wholesale storage, distribution to retailers, restaurants etc.);
- retail distribution: this category includes all types of commerce for sale to end consumers (e.g. market stalls, supermarkets, food stores, mail order etc.);
- transport: this category makes a clear distinction between means and containers that are only watched over and means and containers that are subject to health authorisation;
- public catering: includes all forms of catering that are carried out in public places and that serve end consumers (e.g. restaurants, rotisseries, bars, wine-cellars, etc.);
- institutional and care-home catering: includes forms of catering that serve an identifiable end consumer (e.g. company canteens, schools, hospitals, prisons, colleges, etc.);
- producers and packagers that mainly sell retail: includes activities whereby a product is processed and "mainly" sold to the end consumer by the producer (e.g. butchers, bakers, pastry chefs, ice-cream makers, etc.).
Veneto has 130,000-plus operators that are eligible for inspection and out of the units inspected 4.4% committed breaches, mainly in general hygiene, HACCP (Note 5)
and employee training, a drop of 5.7% on the previous year. (Table 11.2.3)
In recent years, the percentage of irregular samples discovered by the Experimental Zoo-Prophylactic Agencies of the Venezia regions and the Regional Environmental Protection Agencies has been consistently below 2%; more than 12,000 samples were analysed in 2008 and 1.7% were irregular. (Figure 11.2.2)
It should be noted that almost half of the breaches were of a microbiological nature and 22% revealed problems with product labelling or presentation. (Figure 11.2.3)
The rapid alert system
A product of sample inspections, the rapid alert system is a network where information can be exchanged quickly in order to notify the public in the event of serious risk to human health due to food or feed (Note 6)
The alert system is triggered whenever the medical and/or Veterinary Service at the ASL, or the local departments of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Policies receive information about food or feed that poses a serious threat to human or animal health, or to the environment.
Notifications are divided into the following types:
- alert notifications: sent in the event of situations posing a serious threat to consumer health.
- information notifications: triggered only for products that are not currently on the market, or for cases in which products do not pose a serious threat to consumer and/or animal health. In such cases, no immediate measures need to be taken.
- news notifications: related to the safety of food and feed and are used to disseminate information about particular health and hygiene issues that may be considered of interest.
In 2008 Veneto dealt with 286 notifications, which may have been triggered by the region itself following an information notification regarding food, feed and food-handling materials, or managed by the region, but triggered following an information notification from other regions or other EU Member States. (Figure 11.2.4)
The alert system requires the producer to withdraw or recall any products that are deemed dangerous for human or animal health.
If there is a serious and immediate risk, police and regional health departments are authorised to impound products immediately. This emergency procedure may also be combined with a press release. In this case, the public is informed about the risk of consuming a certain product and how to return the foodstuff to the local health authority. This procedure affords consumers peace of mind regarding the health and safety of Italian products as well as those that arrive from across the world.