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Volcanic ash could pose a threat to food safety

By Guy Montague-Jones , 22-Apr-2010
Last updated on 22-Apr-2010 at 13:36 GMT2010-04-22T13:36:48Z

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is investigating potential food safety risks emerging from the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Food headlines related to the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland have so far focused on the air transport chaos and its impact on imports and business travel.

But with smoke still billowing from the volcano, the European Commission has started asking questions about how the ash cloud will affect food safety and animal health.

Food safety concerns

On Tuesday, it sent a letter to EFSA requesting urgent advice on the contamination risks that could arise from ash fallout.

The letter stated: “Taking into account the chemical composition of the ashes, questions could be raised on potential contamination of the food and feed chain and the related risks for public and animal health.

“In particular the presence of significant levels of fluorine in the ash could potentially affect the health of animals in case of ash fallout.”

As well as requesting an assessment of the risks, the Commission asked EFSA to look into the effectiveness of mitigation measures such as washing fruit and vegetables thoroughly.

EFSA response

In its response, EFSA said it will prepare initial advice on short-term risks from direct exposure of animals and plants to ash in the EU by 23 April.

This work will be followed up with an investigation into the long-term risks related to indirect exposure that is expected to be delivered within a month.

To meet the tight deadlines, EFSA has put together a team of experts at the Authority including specialists in contaminants, animal feed, and data collection to analyse the composition of the volcanic ash and evaluate potential exposure levels. The team will also liaise with external scientists and outside organisations and authorities like the World Health Organisation.

Giving the official view from the food manufacturing industry in the EU, the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries (CIAA) said it very much welcomed the decision to launch the investigation.

No issue in the UK (so far)

While European authorities pursue their investigation, the government in the UK has yet to raise any alarm bells about volcanic ash and food safety.

A spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) told that the regulator “does not consider it to be a food safety issue at present.”

The spokesperson added that the regulator was following the lead of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

A statement from DEFRA said: “There continues to be no recorded impact on air quality, water quality or water supply, and no immediate concerns for animal health or crop production following the volcanic eruption in Iceland on Wednesday 14 April.”

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