Ensuring Safe Produce from Farm to Fork in Europe
By Vlasta Piližota, Ph.D.
Categories: Food Types: Produce
Recognition of the importance of routine fruit and vegetable consumption, together with a marked increase in the year-round availability of fresh produce globally, has contributed to a substantial increase in the consumption of fresh produce in recent years. In addition, many consumers consider themselves to be vegetarians. A high intake of fruit and vegetables in the diet is positively associated with the prevention of certain diseases [e.g., The World Health Organization (WHO) advocates a daily intake of 400 grams of fruit and vegetables or approximately five portions per day]. There is also evidence that a high intake of fiber protects against weight gain and obesity. For those reasons, national dietary programs have been promoted in many countries. Eating a variety of fruit and vegetables is important to obtain full nutritional benefits; however, access to and availability of fresh produce can be problematic because of short shelf life, quality, cost and risk of contamination.
The European Union’s Fruit and Vegetable Sector
The fruit and vegetable sector in the European Union (EU) is very important, representing approximately 17% of total EU agriculture production and utilizing about 3% of the cultivated area in the EU. The EU’s policy in this sector has four main criteria: the diversity of production types, the short shelf-life of many products, the need to improve product quality and the importance of trade. This sector is very heterogeneous as there is widespread domestic production of certain fruit and vegetables, encompassing a large variety of products, production systems, farm types and sizes as well as marketing channels. Although the EU has a very high degree of self-sufficiency for produce, during the last 10 years this sector has faced strong pressure from highly concentrated retail and discount chains on one side and strong competition from third-world products on the other. However, both seasons and changes in climate limit cultivation in certain parts of Europe. In particular, insufficient quantities of produce during the winter months are balanced by means of product cultivation in greenhouses. Other products are imported from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, etc. Suppliers from outside the EU can offer their products on the European market during the winter months. Exotic produce can be imported throughout the entire year without difficulty. Retail and discount chains have played an important role in the setting of market prices, and third-world countries have offered products of good quality at reasonable prices. The marketshare of third-world countries has rapidly increased: world-wide production of produce reached 1,290 million tons between 2001–2003 (i.e., fruit totaled 480 million tons and vegetables totaled 810 million tons). The largest producer in this same period was China with a share of 35% of world production. The production of fruit and vegetables has increased by 36% in volume between 1995–2003. Two-thirds of this growth originated in China where production increased by 96%, while production in the EU-15 increased by 6%, in India by 38% and in the U.S. by 3%.
The Supply Chain
The EU is the main export destination as well as the main supply region with almost one-half of the world’s imports and more than 40% of the world’s exports. Total EU consumption of fresh fruit was 25 million tons in 2003, while vegetable consumption (including potatoes) was 30 million tons. Italy, Germany and France currently dominate the market for fresh fruit and vegetables, together accounting for approximately one-half of total consumption. The climate limits the production of a range of fruit and vegetables, which are grown in more temperate locations. Allied with seasonal changes, imports from third-world countries are, and always have been, necessary to supply the demand for fruit and vegetables to the EU. Improved growing, storage and distribution, however, have enabled producers to reduce the negative in-fluence of the seasons. Europeans consume more fruit and vegetables than they produce, leaving some interesting opportunities for producers in developing countries. The consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, at present, is declining in some of the largest markets in the EU, while, on the other hand, there are smaller countries taking advantage of segments of this market, especially the growing demand for exotic fruits and vegetables.
Due to imports, outbreaks of foodborne illnesses now have the potential to be global in scale. Europe’s strict rules and regulations concerning hygiene, handling and logistics make it tough for overseas companies to cope with competition in the European market. Competition is heavy in the global produce marketplace, and proper certification is a minimum requirement for entry. Many companies assist producers and exporters of fresh fruit and vegetables in developing countries to enter the European market and establish sustainable trade relationships with European buyers.
The Common Market Organization
The Common Market Organization (CMO) for fresh fruit and vegetables was established in 1962 to govern the sector’s production and trade in the EU and to achieve the Common Agriculture Policy’s objectives. The CMO has supported traditional production, often in less-developed regions, using rural devel-opment measures but has been market-oriented. The first reform of the CMO took place in 1996. The main objectives of policies in this sector were market orientation, decentralization of management, grouping of supply and redirecting budgetary expenditure toward measures that would respond to environmental demands. As a final result of debate in both the European Council and Parliament, Council Regulations (EC) 2200/96, 2201/96 and 2202/96 for fresh fruit and vegetables, processed fruit and vegetables and citrus were adopted in October 1996. In December 2002, the European Council adopted Regulation (EC) 2966/2000 that amended the three above-mentioned regulations. From 1996 until 2004, the European Commission adopted a number of Commission Regulations (EC) that laid down the marketing standards for different fruit and vegetables. Each had been amended several times within the above-mentioned period. The current reform began with debate launched in 2004 by the European Commission about the need for reform. The result of the debate was publication regarding the simplification of the CMO. The most important reasons for the new reform were the following: fall in consumption, imbalance in the supply and distribution chains, limited influence of the producers’ organizations and coherence with rural development aid and market standards. Food safety standards were not part of the basic regulation for fruit and vegetables, although food safety standards contribute to improvements in market transparency and consumer demand. The question of implementation of food safety standards into the CMO has been raised frequently. A new CMO for fruit and vegetables was put into place in January 2008.
Third-world Import Controls
Between 1996 and 2004, imports of plants and plant products from third-world countries were covered primarily by the general food hygiene legislation or ‘Hygiene Package’ and other specific plant health legislation (Directive 2000/29/EC). For consignments containing plants or plant products that are covered by the EU plant health legislation (listed in part B of Annex V to Directive 2000/29/EC), the exporter must obtain a phytosanitary certificate issued by the competent authority of the exporting country. This normally involves registration. These measures exist to prevent the introduction of serious diseases and pests of plants and plant products into and within the EU. The phytosanitary certificate certifies that the plants and/or plant products have been subjected to appropriate inspections, are considered free of harmful, quarantined organisms and practically free of other harmful organisms and are considered to conform to the phytosanitary regulations of the importing country. Under Regulation (EC) 882/2004 (part of the Hygiene Package), the Commission can request third-world countries to provide accurate and up-to-date information on their sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, control procedures and risk assessment procedures with regard to products exported to the EU. Commission Regulation (EC) 1148/2001 covers imported fresh fruit and vegetables, which must be in line with EU marketing standards. The function of the EU marketing standards regulations is to ensure that produce offered to the consumer is sound, clean and of marketable quality and is accurately labeled with the origin, quality class and packer and dispatcher information. Different national institutions try to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases into the European markets. Again, on the horticultural marketing front, imports of fruit and vegetables are inspected to ensure that they conform to EU standards.
Safe Produce Supply Chain
From a food safety perspective, the risks associated with fresh fruit and vegetables are relatively low. However, as produce is prone to contamination from a variety of sources, the proportion of foodborne illness associated with this category has increased in recent years. Along with the increased consumption of fruit and vegetables, contamination risks must be acknowledged and managed, and effective traceability and product recall systems are vital.
Only a few decades ago, the majority of consumers purchased their fruit and vegetables at the local grocery store or farmer’s market and prepared their meals at home. Rapid globalization has added to the complexity of the food supply chain, making issues like food safety, quality and logistics even more complicated than before. We face new challenges as we import different foods from all over the world and as new pathogens emerge and familiar ones grow resistant to treatment. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses now have the potential to be national, continental or even global in scale. Contamination can occur at any point along the farm-to-table food chain (under growing, har-vesting or post-harvest conditions and continuing through to consumption) and can result from deliberate exposure, such as pesticide application, or unintentional exposure, such as microbial contamination. While growers may not have control over factors that affect production, awareness of potential problems helps determine which control options are the most appropriate.
The major source of microbial contamination in fresh fruit and vegetables is associated with human or animal feces. Within crop production, many practices require the use of water, including irrigation, pesticide application, produce washing and cooling systems. Water can be a potential source of pathogen contamination, and there are many organisms that can be transmitted via water, including viruses. Worker hygiene and sanitation practices during production, harvesting, sorting, packing and transport play a critical role in minimizing the potential for microbial contamination of fresh produce. To minimize microbial food safety hazards in fresh produce, growers, packers and shippers should use proper agricultural and management practices in those areas over which they have control.
More than 800 pesticides are currently approved for use in Europe. The procedure for establishing whether a new product merits registration is complex, requiring many toxicity and efficacy studies before initial field tests can be carried out and including tests on the degradation of the product and its derivatives in both the plant and environment. The application of all chemicals added to fruit and vegetables and the levels of residues are controlled and monitored carefully by competent national and international authorities. For that reason, maximum residue levels (MRLs) of pesti-cides in food have been established. Even more welcomed was the fact that in EU Regulation 396/2005, the sensitivity of vulnerable groups, such as children and the unborn, represents the cut-off value for dangerous pesticide residues.
All contaminants in fruit and vegetables can be harmful to human health and have therefore been restricted. Unlike MRLs, contaminants are not a result of what’s added to the crops on purpose, but stem, for example, from heavy metals found in the soil where products are grown. The heavy metals lead and cadmium are restricted in all fruit and vegetables marketed in the EU. Other contaminants are restricted for certain fruit and vegetables (e.g., nitrates in spinach and lettuce and aflatoxins in maize).
The market for organically produced fruit and vegetables continues to grow, with many supermarkets offering organic alternatives as well as conventional ones. Consumers associate organic with healthier products. Environmental concerns may also motivate consumers to purchase organic food. Certification is a must for anyone marketing a product as organic in the EU, where minimum requirements have been established by EU legislation.
When it comes to food, the EU considers safety a top priority. The European food safety system is based on the premise that safety must be guaranteed throughout the food chain if the health of consumers is to be protected. The slogan ‘from farm to fork’ describes how the whole supply chain is responsible for guaranteeing food safety. For the first link in the food chain, the growers of fruit and vegetables, this concept trans-lates into quality demands and efforts aimed at keeping contaminants and pest-icide residues at acceptable levels. In addition to complying with legal requirements, many companies have joined independent sustainability initiatives or set up their own stricter environmental and social standards. All of these requirements and preferences together are usually referred to as ‘buyer requirements’ or ‘market access requirements.’ Ultimately, the quality and safety of food depends on the efforts of everyone involved in the complex chain of agriculture production, processing, transport, food production and consumption, and it is everyone’s responsibility, from the farmers who grow the food to the people who place the food on the table. As the EU and the WHO put it succinctly, food safety is a shared responsibility ‘from farm to fork.’
Vlasta Piližota, Ph.D., is a full professor of Food Technology at the University Josip Juraj Strossmayer in Croatia. She has extensive experience in the inhibition of browning of fruit and vegetables, sanitation and disinfection (microbial safety) of food, new methods in food preservation, aroma composition and retention in different foods, thermophysical and rheological properties of foodstuffs and food adulteration. She is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists and United Fresh Produce Association. She can be reached at Vlasta.Pilizota@ptfos.hr.