Food safety data — investing in the future
From Statistics Explained
- Published in Sigma - The Bulletin of European Statistics, 2010/01
Food safety data, as produced by Eurostat, deal with statistics on the safety of products used for human and animal consumption in the European Union (EU), irrespective of whether these goods were manufactured in the EU or imported. Marleen de Smedt and Ana Maria Martinez Palou from the Health and Food Safety Unit at Eurostat spoke to Sigma about their work.
Ms De Smedt, the then Head of Unit, explained that the countries of the European Union have opted for a unified policy in the area of food safety, making sure that no harm to their populations could come from the food they consume. ‘High standards of food safety, animal welfare and plant health are enforced and monitored jointly by all Member States and all available data is regularly sent to the European Commission,’ she explained.
‘Gathering data in this domain is relatively new,’ Ms De Smedt said. ‘Work on food safety statistics started in 2003. After extensive consultations with the Member States, we agreed on several fi elds of priority for further development, in which the work on common terminology and sampling methods continues to this day.’
From farm to fork statistics
A dedicated section of five people in Ms De Smedt’s unit, led by Ms Martinez Palou, deals with food safety statistics.
‘High standards of food safety on our continent are one of the policy priorities of the European Commission and so the scope of our work is also dictated by European policymakers’ needs,’ said Ms Martinez Palou. ‘The so-called “from farm to fork” approach means that we aim to trace and gather data relating to the food chain as a whole, starting with agricultural production and feeds, through to the subsequent food processing, its distribution and, finally, its consumption.’
The sheer size of the European food chain is huge. There are well over 14 million agricultural holdings registered in the EU, employing almost 13 million people. A further 6.6 million work in restaurant and catering businesses. The annual average harvest in the EU for cereals is 270 million tonnes, with over 20 million tonnes additionally imported every year. ‘The list could go on almost endlessly,’ said Ms De Smedt.
While compiling its data, Eurostat closely works with the EU Member States, the European Commission’s Directorate- General for Health and Consumers, the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development,the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and other institutions.
‘Often Member States send some of their data to the directorates- general, as required by the Commission regulations. These data are analysed at the DGs and then forwarded to us,’ said Ms Martinez Palou. ‘Other data come to us directly from the Member States and are made available to other institutions by us. Understandably, we are working hard on common terminology and definitions; no easy task in view of the fact that often data reporting differs widely depending on the requirements of various institutions.’
Among the priorities in the area of food safety statistics, Ms De Smedt listed control and monitoring activities, food consumption statistics and data on products with the socalled ‘distinctive marks’. ‘Major institutions involved in the production of those statistics form joint task forces, chaired by Eurostat, and work towards the further development of common methodologies and harmonisation of data,’ said Ms De Smedt. ‘Naturally, some areas show more progress than others.’
Control and monitoring data
The area of the control and monitoring of food production is probably the most successful so far,’ said Ms Martinez Palou. ‘In 2007 the work of the task force was expanded into a technical group with the participation of all 27 Member States.’
Ms Martinez Palou said that in that field, the Health and Consumers DG receives most of the figures from Member States, following several regulations and directives. An important legal act was the regulation on food and feed controls adopted in 2004. ‘This regulation obliges the Member States to set up a strategy and planning of controls for consecutive five years, which implies a stronger cooperation between the different national control bodies and should lead to better data quality,’ Ms Martinez Palou said.
Ms de Smedt added that work on the common definitions and classifications, as proposed by Eurostat, started in 2005. ‘Even though the full data harmonisation in this area does not yet exist, we managed to build a proper databank that today can be consulted online by the data providers under restricted access,’ Ms De Smedt said. ‘However, the more controls are carried out, the more problems are found. This is why not all Member States are keen to publish their figures, which they fear could be misinterpreted. The resources of the statistical institutes are often stretched to their limits as it is.’
Food consumption statistics
According to Ms Martinez Palou, the need for reliable statistics on food consumption in the EU has grown enormously in recent years. ‘The demands by policymakers but also other parties have gone up significantly since we put together all “from farm to fork” statistics in 2005,’ she said.
Ms De Smedt explained that today food consumption data are obtained from three different sources. ‘Firstly, there are the annual balance sheets, then the household budget surveys (HBS) taking place every five years; finally, figures also come from the dietary surveys; however, those are carried out rather irregularly from country to country.’ In the field of food consumption statistics, Eurostat cooperates with the European Food Safety Authority, principally involved in the evaluation of dietary surveys.
Ms Martinez Palou added that none of the above data collection sources could be considered as sufficient for replying to all expressed data needs. ‘For this reason, we focus our work on a set of priority indicators which can be calculated from data already collected in many countries from household budget surveys,’ she said.
‘We are working on the first set of indicators, such as vegetable and fruit consumption and energy intake,’ said Ms de Smedt. ‘Eurostat and the Member States agreed on the need for data collection in this area and I can confirm that currently 24 out of 27 countries have already sent us their figures for 2005. We consult with the Member States on a regular basis to find out whether they wish to carry on with the data production in this area in the future.’
Products with distinctive marks
According to Ms de Smedt and Ms Martinez Palou, this last field constitutes an important challenge for European statistics producers. ‘To start with, it includes data on three different groups of products,’ said Ms De Smedt. ‘They are: products with the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), such as the Camembert cheese from Normandy, organic farming produce and genetically modified products, the so-called GMOs.’
The amount of data available for each group varies greatly according to Ms Martinez Palou. ‘For instance, figures concerning organic produce have been collected since approximately 1997 and are available for almost all Member States,’ she said. ‘On the other hand, data collection on the PDO products, started in 2005, is voluntary. This means that some EU countries send us their data while others don’t. Some Member States do not collect them at all.’
‘The GMO products are the most controversial group, because these products mostly enter the European Union as imports from other countries, mainly as feed materials,’ said Ms De Smedt. ‘This is why we have focused our efforts on the amounts of main imported goods, such as corn for the feeding sector, but it is still incredibly difficult to identify them at the entry points.’
Ms De Smedt concluded by saying that the production of statistics in the area of food safety was growing dynamically despite difficulties with data harmonisation on a European level. ‘I have no doubt that the huge changes in the methodology and sampling procedures that took place in this new statistical field in the last couple of years bode well for the future,’ she said.
Further Eurostat information
- SIGMA - The Bulletin of European Statistics, 01/2010: From farm to fork - Focus on sustainable agriculture and fisheries statistics