FAO raises the profile of early warning systems

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The FAO is attempting to raise awareness and understanding of early warning tools and systems in food safety to support their wider use.

Early warning systems play a role in reducing the potential risks from various hazards, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a recent report.

The capability to identify emerging food safety risks and to provide timely warnings to allow for mitigation measures to be taken is useful for national and international authorities dealing with food safety.

There has been a shift from reactive to proactive systems for issues that may require targeted monitoring, surveillance, research, and regulation. Modern digital warning tools are fed by numerous, real-time, and diverse data and use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques.

Example tools and issues to overcome

The report covers Big Data, AI applications, biosensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain technologies, and machine learning. Gaps and barriers to the uptake of such tools and technical and socioeconomic challenges are also addressed.

The document was developed by FAO and Wageningen Food Safety Research (WFSR). Work included a literature review, an online survey with 83 responses from 59 countries and virtual workshops.

Issues with AI were the long training time, plus ethical and policy challenges. For Big Data, there was insufficient data quality and quantity in food safety and limited data from the private sector. Blockchain has a high implementation cost, while crowdsourcing could lead to poor data quality caused by inaccurate information. For remote sensing, there are user difficulties in understanding the collected data, and there can be a lot of irrelevant data with text mining.

Findings from the online survey and workshops found other barriers for low and middle-income countries were the absence of financial, human, and material resources. Challenges included insufficient monitoring of foodborne hazards and a lack of technologies and databases to traceback pathogens. Participants mentioned a lack of coordination between agencies and limited financial support.

From a technical perspective, there is a need for infrastructure and facilities for data collection, storage, and processing. Reliable internet access and wireless connectivity in LMICs is often a problem. Also, in most cases, an extensive computational infrastructure capable of processing large volumes of diverse datasets is necessary.

WHO workshop

Meanwhile, outcomes from an event for some Asian nations on the rapid exchange of information through the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) have been published.

WHO, FAO and INFOSAN organized the workshop for Central Asian countries in Kazakhstan in May 2023.  Central Asian countries‎ have experienced significant economic shifts in the past two decades, leading to reduced dependence on domestic agriculture and increased reliance on food imports.

Past evaluations have highlighted the need to strengthen the region’s incident and emergency response systems, including risk communication and participation in INFOSAN.

Participants said barriers to information sharing during food safety emergencies were the absence of a coordinating agency and mutually recognized standard operating procedures, a reluctance to share information, confidentiality concerns, the lack of specialist training, language barriers, poor internet connectivity, and cultural differences.

Speakers gave perspectives from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

In Kazakhstan, efforts are underway to improve the risk management system, introduce early warning and response programs, upgrade the laboratory service, and train and certify staff.

Kyrgyzstan does not currently have specific regulations for responding to food safety emergencies. The country has piloted an automated system for epidemiological surveillance. One example of incident response covered food poisoning traced to contaminated sushi. Salmonella Enteritidis was detected in raw salmon, which caused illness in more than 350 people. Prompt action was taken domestically, but neighboring countries were not informed.

Foodborne diseases are a recurring issue in Tajikistan, primarily due to a lack of awareness by consumers about the precautions to take when consuming food. There is a need to enhance the surveillance system in the country, monitor public catering networks, and improve compliance with sanitary standards throughout the supply chain.

Turkmenistan has a monitoring and surveillance system to ensure food safety. Data related to foodborne illnesses, outbreaks, and other incidents are collected and analyzed using a standardized reporting form. In Uzbekistan, instructions around food poisoning incidents have been revised to align with the requirements of the International Health Regulations, while hygiene standards have also been reviewed and updated. Laws are in place to regulate labs involved in food safety.

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