Food pathogens and harmful toxins dominate the EU's food risk alert system this week, detected in a range of products from fish and cheese to pistachios and chilli powder, reports Lindsey Partos.
In place since 1979 RASFF provides national authorities with a tool to swap information on national measures taken to ensure food safety, and communicate (a legal obligation) on foods withdrawn from the food chain.
Member states alerted the system this week to four separate cases of the common pathogen Listeria monocytogenes and four for Salmonella.
In the eyes of the increasingly cynical consumer, food safety, and the efficient checks and balances in the food safety chain, can not be underestimated.
But the number of food-linked alerts in the European Union leapt by over forty per cent in 2003 on the previous year, with the majority sourced in the 'old' member states.
'Alerts' require immediate action (the case for the Listeria alerts in week 26) due to the risk of food contamination to the consumer, whereas for 'information' notifications - as is the case for the aflatoxin notifications last week - the food product has yet to reach other member markets in the RASSF network.
A recent report from RASFF reveals the number of 'information exchanges' - alerts and information combined - had risen from 3024 in 2002 to 4286 in 2003.
Food makers operating in today's climate have no choice but to implement rigorous food safety tools, from machinery to staff training, into their daily costs.
Putting a price on food safety is 'frankly impossible' because it is totally integrated, says Francois Perroud, a spokesperson for number one food maker Nestle.
At every level quality systems are in place to protect our reputation - including the day to day finely-tuned tracking in our 500 factories, he recently told FoodNavigator.com.
France reported Listeria in pasteurised cheese from the homeland, Ireland in Irish semi hard raw milk cheese, and Italy found two cases of this pathogen in the 'unfrozen loins of catfish imported from Vietnam.
Poland alerted the system to the harmful Salmonella pathogen in crushed senna brought in from Egypt, while Norway did likewise for beef from Namibia.
Mycotoxins, to which aflatoxins belong, are naturally-occurring toxins produced by certain fungi that can grow on various foods such as cereals, nuts, dried fruits, apples and legumes under certain environmental conditions.
Aflatoxins have been shown to cause cancer in animals and aflatoxin B1, the most toxic, can cause cancer in humans.
But despite European rules, last week more than a third of the total 55 alerts came from the detection of aflatoxin in a range of nuts. The majority of contaminated products hailed from pistachios originating in Iran. Although Spain alerted members to shelled almonds from the US with aflatoxins, and coated peanuts from China.
In contrast to other mycotoxins, no Tolerable Daily Intakes (TDIs) has been set by Europe for aflatoxins because they have been shown to cause cancer in the liver of laboratory animals by damaging DNA.
They have also been linked to liver cancer in a number of developing countries, where some foods that are an important part of the diet can contain high levels of aflatoxins.
Europe's former Scientific Committee for Food (tasks of which are now handled by the European Food Safety Authority) recommends that aflatoxin concentrations in food should be reduced to the lowest levels reasonably achievable.