Interview with Bernhard Url, EFSA's executive director: ''Food is not a source or route of COVID-19 transmission"

Autor:

  • Karla Juničić

30.03.2020.

EFSA

Bernhard Url, Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

The 75 EFSA Advisory Forum meeting was planned to take place in Osijek, kindly hosted by the Croatian Authorities. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting has been converted into a virtual meeting and will take place on the 1 and 2 of April 2020. The Croatian Agency for Agriculture and Food, based in Osijek, is both the Advisory Forum and Focal Point designated national organization. Regarding this, Euractiv held an interview with Executive Director of the EFSA Bernhard Url.

1.Since there are scientific conclusions on how long coronavirus survives on some surfaces, can food be the potential transmitter of coronavirus? How so?

There is currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission. Transmission is linked to the respiratory tract. This means the virus spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

It is true coronavirus can survive on surfaces for a limited time. An infected person can contaminate food by preparing or handling it with dirty hands or via infectious droplets. However, food safety regulations in EU Member States ensure a high level of protection against contaminated food. Still I cannot stress enough the importance of high standards of hygiene, also in our households, when we are preparing food. Hygiene is key, not only to prevent COVID-19, but any foodborne infection.

Additionally, as with other known coronaviruses, this virus is sensitive to cooking temperatures.

 

2.Which scientific experiments contribute to such conclusion?

Authorities such as the WHO or the US Food and Drug Administration agree that food is not a vehicle for infection in view of the current state of knowledge. Experience from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, also show that transmission through food consumption did not occur. However, we are closely monitoring the scientific literature for any new and relevant information.

 

3.How come an animal used for food in China was the likely source of the initial infection? Can this pose a risk of food safety in general especially considering the animals we eat, or maybe food and vegetables? How can we be sure that if we eat an animal product we won't get infected by some disease?

There are hypotheses about a food market in Wuhan being the origin of the chain of infection. To my knowledge the actual source of the first human infection has not been identified yet. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in animals and humans. They are one of the main reasons for the common cold which many of us suffer from every year. Until now we have no evidence of a foodborne coronavirus infection of humans. The new SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to follow this pattern, as it affects the respiratory tract.

The EU has strict rules in place guaranteeing a high level of food safety. Biosecurity measures and good hygiene practices, including good personal hygiene practices of food workers, already protect consumers from other possible infections via contaminated food, not just the coronavirus.

We can all take simple precautions such as washing and sanitizing all food contact surfaces and utensils, washing our hands and properly cooking food for example.

 

4.How can we reduce use of antibiotics in animals which mislead to bacteria becoming resistant in their bodies ?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the biggest global health threats of our time. It is extremely serious because if antibiotics are no longer effective in curing bacterial infections, humanity will be brought back to pre-Fleming times when people died of curable diseases like meningitis, pneumonia or syphilis.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animal farming is one driver of resistance. EFSA and other scientific organisations have issued recommendations to policymakers that include setting reduction targets, replacing antimicrobials with alternatives such as probiotics and prebiotics, phasing out the preventative use of antimicrobials and the development of alternatives.

Alternative systems to intensive farming and improved animal husbandry should also be considered to improve disease prevention and control.

 

5.Just recently, chlorpyrifos (a pesticide that was linked to the brain damage at kids and found in fruits and vegetables), was banned in Croatia and other countries of the EU. It was a long battle in between politicians and pharmaceutical companies but EFSA did a big step. Can you describe us how did EFSA managed to make an influence on banning a dangerous chemical?

The political debate and the decisions that you describe were informed by EFSA's scientific work. However we did not take an active role in the debate, nor did we influence the type of decision to be taken. Taking decisions on behalf of society is the role of politicians. The role of EFSA is to inform policy making with the best possible science. We do this in many areas, from animal and plant health to pesticides and other chemicals that are found in food, like food additives for instance.

In the case of chlorpyrifos, EFSA raised serious concerns about human health and transmitted these findings to policymakers so that decisions could be taken. I think this can be considered a good example of the strong food safety system that we have in the European Union.

 

6.Why does glyphosate cause so much controversy inside the political spectrum of the EU? Is its ban is a difficult political decision? What is EFSA doing regarding the ban?

EFSA’s role in the assessment of glyphosate is no different than the example you gave of chlorpyrifos: It is EFSA’s task to periodically assess the safety of the active substances of pesticides. These assessments inform political decisions on European level.

There are many other cases that exemplify this process. Take neonicotinoids for instance. EFSA was asked to assess the risk these pesticides pose to bees. On the basis of the scientific information we provided, the EU introduced a ban on several substances to better protect bees and the environment.

Over fifteen years EFSA has assessed hundreds of pesticide active substances. None of them gained as much attention as glyphosate did. I agree this is a special case. Glyphosate became a proxy for a broader societal discussion about GMOs, biodiversity and our food system in general. A debate about these issues is essential. But these are value based discussions, which should happen outside the scientific work of regulatory agencies like EFSA. It is the role of politicians to represent the values of their constituents through democratic processes.

 

7.Why did different agencies reach a different conclusion on the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate? How come the EFSA concluded it was ''“unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans” while IARC concluded it is ''probably carcinogenic''?

In science it is not surprising that different conclusions are reached if different scientific evidence and methodologies are used. This is what led the IARC to conclude differently from EFSA. Other regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia, to name a few, came to the same conclusion as EFSA. Most importantly, within the European Union the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is the body responsible for classifying chemicals. ECHA also concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic. EFSA and ECHA both identified some concerns for the environment in their conclusions.

 

8.How do you comment the statement by Croatian Ministry of Agriculture that Croatia won't ban the glyphosate, while some countries started to limit the use?

Our job is to provide the best science available to inform policy decisions at political level. Policy makers factor in a range of considerations, not only scientific, but also socio-economic and ethical for example. It is not for me to comment on a political decision. EFSA and ECHA’s scientific work on glyphosate was supported by all EU Member State competent authorities. On a scientific level there was unanimous agreement on the risks related to this specific active substance.

 

9.Is the future of agriculture possible without use pesticides, despite their link to biodiversity loss? New EC strategy from Farm to Fork is trying to limit their use but there is still strong resistance from politicians and farmers. Do politicians take scientific evidence sufficiently into account? Do farmers need to step out more or get more informed?

The European Commission’s upcoming Farm to Fork strategy will introduce measures to make agriculture and the food system more sustainable. EFSA is ready to support these efforts by providing scientific recommendations wherever required.

Machinery and chemicals have transformed agriculture in providing consumers access to food at a relatively low price. I think chemicals will be needed for protecting plant health also in the foreseeable future. However, the use of pesticides could be more targeted and more sustainable, by applying principles of integrated pest management, for example. This would also mean, for instance, that higher risk pesticides are substituted with low-risk pesticides. Precision agriculture opens new ways of applying pesticides more focused and in smaller quantities. Advanced environmental monitoring systems are needed to assess their impact on biodiversity, water and soil. And I believe all that won’t be possible to achieve without the crucial support that science brings to innovation and the assessment of the risks of such innovative approaches.

 

10.How is climate change influencing the future of food safety?

Climate change is happening and already impacts on food safety. Fungi found in areas with hot and humid climates appeared in southern Europe in the early 2000s and have spread steadily northwards since then. We have observed the emergence of mycotoxins via contaminated food and feed crops like cereals for instance. Rising temperatures and changing environmental conditions also result in the movement of certain invasive alien species, which can be harmful to plant and animal health.

Climate change and its impacts demand increasingly complex scientific work. A key element to face this challenge is increased cooperation among different scientists from different disciplines working together.

 

11.Will genetically modified food be required to feed people in the future? What is the stance of EFSA on Genetically modified organisms?

As in the case of pesticides, EFSA is asked to provide a scientific response to the question of whether GMOs used in agriculture are safe. The policy decisions that follow EFSA’s advice are not within EFSA’s remit. Therefore, EFSA does not have a particular stance on GMOs.

 

12.What is the role of EFSA in the controversial debate over new plant breeding techniques, following the much discussed EU court decision?

EFSA was asked by the European Commission to check whether the existing methodologies used to assess the safety of conventional GMOs would be appropriate for assessing so called new breeding techniques. The work is ongoing and some draft results have already been made available to the public for them to provide comments.

 

13.Are there any indications that, due to climate change, some diseases might increase in the future, like we witnessed reappearance African swine fever or Avian Influenza this year, as well as the appearance of new ones, like COVID-19?

Diseases know no borders. They spread and move under the influence of different factors, including climate change. The spread of African swine fever is however, according to our work, more linked to human activities than climate change. When it comes to Avian Influenza, a virus that can be spread via wild birds, the link to climate change is more substantiated because the migratory routes of birds are strongly affected by a changing climate. Similarly, the spread of other diseases, like the Bluetongue virus of ruminants, can be linked to the increased expansion of the insects that act as vectors due to a changing climate.

 

14.How do you comment the fact that despite higher food safety levels being proposed in EU countries the general public is more concerned and suspicious towards food safety? How can food transparency be better promoted?

The EU is recognised worldwide as having a leading example of a robust food safety system. Food has never been safer, and consumers are aware of this, according to our recent Eurobarometer survey on food safety. Only 1 out of 5 Europeans say safety is their main concern when buying food. Our perception of risks is not always in line with the real risks. The public debate is focussed on the safety of chemicals used in the food chain but science tells that more substantial risks relate to foodborne diseases like salmonella or campylobacter or in AMR and unhealthy diets.

We try, through our communications department and together with our partners in the EU Member States to constantly improve the way we provide information to the public. By using different tools and different languages. By being present on social media and in the media. And by fighting misinformation.

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.