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EFSA offers seafood industry expert health, safety guidance.

SEAFOOD species are often the ocean's dustbins, finding nutrients in the particles and waste that filter down to the seabed, and as result they are very sensitive to contamination. This is of course a bigger issue in regions where coasts are heavily populated, causing municipal and industrial pollution, and so it is of little surprise that the European Union's (EU) news agency the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is concerned with contamination of foodstuffs, including those harvested from the sea. Its scientific advice on such matters is just one way in which this European Union (EU) agency can help the seafood industry.

And EFSA has plenty of expertise. The Parma, Italy-based agency has 10 specialist panels--many investigating and advising on issues potentially of importance to the seafood sector, as well as a scientific committee working on cross discipline matters (see science/sc_commitee.html for details). Maybe first in priority for the seafood sector is the panel on contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM), which deals with questions on contaminants in food and feed, associated areas and undesirable substances such as natural toxicants, mycotoxins and residues. Close in importance is the panel on biological hazards (BIOHAZ), which deals with food safety and food-borne disease, microbiology, food hygiene and associated waste management. The panel on dietetic products, nutrition and allergies (NDA) is also important, given the vulnerability of many consumers to shellfish allergies. The pesticide risk assessment peer review (PRAPeR) panel considers a contamination issue of relevance to coastal seafood operators, and the panel on additives and products or substances used in animal feed (FEEDAP), plus the panel on genetically modified organisms (GMO) both cover issues of potential importance. While these committees have formal roles in advising EU political institutions in devising scientifically well-grounded food legislation, they also advise and work with food producers in devising workable advise and assessing the safety of feeds, food, ingredients and packaging.

So, what have all these experts actually been doing?

The obvious place to start is EFSA's detailed research on foodborne illnesses. With close links to EU health services, EFSA produced unrivalled data that can show the seafood industry what diseases it needs to worry about. In its second comprehensive report (see-- science/monitoring_zoonoses/reports/ zoonoses_report_2005.Par.0001.File.dat/ Zoonoses_report_2005.pdf) on the issue, (released last December), EFSA noted the continuing virulence of salmonella infections in the EU, with 176,395 reported cases in 2005 and testing revealing its presence in cooked crustaceans and molluscs and live bivalve molluscs. Another disease receiving attention of note for the seafood sector was L. monocytogenes, found in molluscs and crustaceans in Greece, Italy, Poland and France during 2005, the latest available figures.

Another key issue is that of allergies, a health problem of major concern to shellfish producers. EU directive EC/2000/13 (as amended by directive EC/2003/89) insists that ingredients or products likely to spark allergic reactions be flagged as allergens on packaging and EFSA has been investigating the extent to which shellfish labels should carry such warnings. The panel on dietetic products, nutrition and allergies has investigated the issue as regards molluscs, concluding that the muscle protein tropomyosin was a key allergen, especially as it is heat-resistant and "not reliably reduced by food processing". Indeed mollusc allergenicity in general "is not reliably reduced by food processing" and the panel also noted "reports of increased allergenicity after heating". This information fed into European Commission decisions to list molluscs as a potential allergen requiring safety labelling and such scientific advice to Brussels remains a key role of EFSA.

It follows a 2004 agency assessment on crustaceans, even more damning: "crustaceans appear to be among the food allergens that most commonly cause food-allergic reactions. No shellfish has been found safe. The reactions sometimes are very severe". With the Commission legally bound to base its food regulation of all kinds on expert science, verdicts such as these from EFSA are of crucial importance. And its panels keep an eye on technological change and new science, which gives the seafood sector a chance to feed its own research into EU regulatory change if it established and maintains good relations with EFSA. As regards listed potential allergens, for instance, an EFSA report has stressed: "This list should be kept under review in the light of changing food practices and emergence of new clinical observations and other kind of scientific information."

Such ongoing scientific study is also being carried out within EFSA under a current review of EU pesticide residue limits, which are of particular concern to freshwater and estuary seafood producers because of drainage and runoff. Here, the agency's pesticide risk assessment peer review unit has been considering 236 chemicals in a European Commission-sponsored review for potential official residue limits and has recently concluded that just 92 "were unlikely to present a risk." For the remaining 144 pesticide ingredients, EFSA's panel said "the first screening could not exclude a potential consumer risk and therefore further scientific assessment and/or risk management considerations are necessary."

One more area of concern for EFSA of relevance to the seafood sector is the minimisation of certain 'non-dioxin-like' polychlorinated biphenyls (NDL-PCBs) in food over health concerns. The problem, said EFSA, is that it was hard to separate these lightly-studied elements from their cousins, the oft-examined 'dioxin-like' PCBs, especially when checking their presence in the body. Nonetheless, in a detailed risk assessment, EFSA has warned some European consumers "may be exposed to considerably higher average intakes". The report bemoans the fact non-dioxin-like PCBs have been lightly researched and that although PCB production and use has been banned generally in the industrialised world since the late 1980's, their durability and improper disposal helps them enter the food chain, which accounts for 90% of human exposure levels. Contamination of carnivorous shellfish such as lobsters is a particular problem, with NDL-PCBs "accumulating in meat, liver and particularly in fat tissues". EFSA's panel on contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM) is continuing to study the issue and further advice and guidance is anticipated. *
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Author:Nuthall, Keith
Publication:International News
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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