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Dangerous stowaways: an EU project to look at the international spread of germs on food

03-16-2012 - In these times of globalized trade and increasing international tourism it is not just people and goods that are underway:  pathogens are also travelling throughout the world, both on food and in it.  But surprisingly little is known about which germs are involved and how dangerous they may be.  The issues are to be tackled by a new large-scale project funded by the EU and coordinated by the Vetmeduni Vienna.  The work aims to provide a survey of germs that are coming in to the 27 countries of the EU together with tourists.

The EHEC crisis in Germany in 2011 proved that food brought in from other countries can potentially carry agents that cause life-threatening diseases.  Nevertheless, there have been extremely few investigations of the actual danger posed by germs that enter the EU along with food.  The gap is now to be addressed by a new project, with the EU providing almost three million Euro to cover the costs.  Samples of food confiscated at major European ports and airports as well as at smaller border crossings will be tested for the presence of bacteria.  The project is entitled PROMISE (PROtection of consumers by MIcrobial risk mitigation through SEgregation of expertise) and will be undertaken by twenty partners from various European countries.  The project team comprises representatives of twelve academic institutions and six national authorities for food safety and is headed by Martin Wagner from the Institute of Milk Hygiene at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna).

Tests before destruction

Bacteria show no respect for national borders but may spread throughout the world, causing outbreaks of dangerous diseases far from where they originated.  The standards of hygiene in food production in many tropical and subtropical countries are far below those enforced in Europe.  Bringing foods back home from holiday thus poses a real risk.  “In Frankfurt airport alone, about 22 tons of food people had brought with them on over 5000 flights were confiscated over a 15-month period.  And this amount is probably just the tip of the iceberg.  The authorities at Vienna airport also undertake checks and frequently find food of animal origin that is being imported illegally,” says Wagner, clearly concerned at the potential explosiveness of the situation.  It is generally forbidden to bring food into the 27 EU member countries but very few people seem aware of the law.  If a spot-check reveals food, it is confiscated and destroyed immediately.  Which bacteria the food contains and how dangerous they could have been has to date been examined only rarely.

The goal:  EU-wide standards

As Wagner explains, the PROMISE project has two main goals.  “We would like to make a survey of germs brought in together with food and we also plan to investigate the potential the bacteria have for causing disease.”  In addition, the project will pool data from throughout Europe to enable an accurate assessment of the risks posed by contaminated food of animal origin and will build up an extensive database of bacterial isolates identified in the course of the work.  The new project also aims at improving communications with authorities responsible for risk management in new EU member states and in candidate countries.