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Measuring Food Safety and comparing self checking systems

The symposium was one of the events organized by the Belgian Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (or Food Agency) during the Belgian presidency.  The presidency coincided with the tenth anniversary of the Food Agency.  During that period self checking was one of the most important cornerstones in the food safety policy implemented by the agency and therefore has become the first theme of this symposium.

After ten years, it was also time to reflect on the activities, strategies and core business of the food safety agency.  It became soon apparent that there was a need to develop an objective method of measuring this safety.  The scientific committee of the Food Agency was asked to develop this theme.


Morning session

The morning session of the symposium was devoted to self checking.  The principle of self checking is around for a long time and has been implemented in the European and national legislation.

Hygiene Legis3Mr. Eric Poudelet, director at DG SANCO, opened the morning session, with an overview of the European legislation. Mr. Poudelet described the General Food Law, with an emphasis on the definition of responsabilities and the application of the principles in the in Hygiene Package.  He not only stressed the importance of the implementation of HACCP by the Food business operators but also the possibilities of flexibility built into the legislation. 

Certification and use of private schemes remains a decision of the food business operator. Training on all levels is an important element in the implementation of hygiene package.

Tree member states, Belgium, the Netherlands and France were asked to explain how they have implemented these principles at member state level.


The Belgian approach was presented by Mr. Herman Diricks, director-general control policy at the Agency.  Belgium's approach is quite specific: validation of self-checking is one of the fundamentals of the policy of the Food Agency. In that context, a national legislation has been developed to implement the principles of the European regulation, with special attention for flexibility for the very small enterprises. Guides on self-checking systems were developed for the FBO to serve as a tool for developing their self-checking system, and used by the certification bodies as an audit referential.  Meanwhile, 31 guides have already been approved in Belgium, covering together over 95 % of all FBO's. Operators with a validated self-checking system enjoy a bonus on the levy due to the FASFC and have a lower inspection frequency.   An analysis of the impact of self-checking systems on the inspection results shows that in FBO with a validated self-checking system, the results are significantly better.


Mr. Hans Beuger, program manager food safety at the new VWA (Voedsel en Waren Autoriteit) introduced the participants to the risk based approach of the Netherlands.  Food businesses are categorized, if possible by defining risk as non compliance.  FBO with a good record were only monitored and it was possible to rely on private systems; FBO with an intermediate risk were audited and inspected by the authorities at a standard frequency while FBO’s with a high risk were closely followed and shut down if nessecary.  He explained the principles of the risk plaza, a system set up by FBO’s that comprises a risk database and an audit system for suppliers and an early warning system for participants.  He explained also the role that private certification can play under VWA supervision.


The last presentation of the morning session was given by Dr. Jean-Luc Angot, deputy director-general at the French DGAL (Direction Générale de l’ALimentation) on the prevention and optimization of epidemiologic surveillance in France. In France the guides for good hygiene practices play an important role as well: on the one hand as a tool for FBO's, and on the other hand as a reference for official controls. Besides self-checking at the operator level, official controls are also provided for by the authorities, based on a risk analysis. The risk mark is calculated as a multiplication of the theoretical risk per activity category, the product volume, the susceptibility of consumers and the mark from the plant assessment delivered by the inspector. Implementation of ISO 22000 could in the future also be taken into account. In that context, the French authorities have already rounded off with a theoretical survey and are now conducting a field work survey. Finally, France sees several advantages of centralized data collecting, generated in the self-checking systems implemented by the FBO.

Afternoon session

The afternoon session was dedicated to measuring food safety.  Pr. Mieke Uyttendaele presented the Food Safety Barometer developed by the Scientific Committee of the Belgian Food Safety Agency. Although there exists different barometers for measuring for example the quality of the environment or poverty, none existed up till now for food safety.

At first, the concept of measuring and following up the safety of the food chain was explained. It is based on the ‘Pressure-State-Response’ model.  The Food Safety Barometer is an instrument that compares the global Belgian food safety state over a one year time period with that of a previous time period. The Food Safety Barometer consists of a basket of 30, meticulously chosen, food safety indicators covering the whole food chain. The barometer has been developed to provide the possibility to monitor food safety over a longer period and to be a tool to communicate in a comprehensible manner to the stakeholders  of the food chain. The barometer of food safety was determined for the years 2007, 2008 and 2009. It was concluded that food safety in Belgium is on a high level. By comparing the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 a trend towards improvement was observed.





In the second part, the results of measuring ‘Pressure’ and ‘Response’ on the food chain were presented. Different stakeholders of the food chain were asked to score a list of different types of pressures and to describe how their organization reacted on perceived pressures. It turned out that financial and economic pressures were perceived as being the most important pressures on the food chain, while climate change and technological developments were much less important. Different stakeholders reacted differently on the pressures depending upon their position in the food chain and their respective responsibilities.  Responses were of a general nature such as: communication, providing training, participation in discussion fora, adaptation of legislation and control plans, initiating research, …

It was concluded that food safety is a complex subject, difficult to define and to measure. It is dynamic in nature and demands continuous efforts to monitor properly. Communication and collaboration between competent authorities, food business operators, scientists, consumers, sector representatives, … seems essential to keep food safe.

Dr. Liesbeth Jacxsens presented in a second presentation a tool for measuring food safety management systems implemented in food processing businesses and looked for the relationship between the level of food safety and the presence of quality assurance systems. The tool, which was developed during the EU Research Pathogen Combat project, consisted of a web-based diagnostic instrument enabling food processing companies to self-assess their compliance with microbial risk control and legislation. Eighty-two Belgian companies of which 50% were certified for self-checking and 90% were certified for commercial quality systems participated in the study. Their results were compared in a European context. It was concluded that Belgian food processing companies demonstrated a good performance of food safety output with a rather advanced level of food safety management systems. 

The symposium ended with a round table discussion on the two subjects.  The speakers were joined by a representative of the Belgian Food Industry, Mr. Johan Hallaert and last but not least a representative of the consumers, Mr. Giuseppe Simone, food policy officer at the BEUC, the European consumer organization.  Mr. Hallaert insisted on the need for harmonization within Europe and welcomed the good results for FBO’s with validated self checking systems.  Mr. Simone supported all the measures taken by FBO to enhance food safety but insisted on the need for sufficient and efficient controls by member states.



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