EUROPE – A groundbreaking study funded by the Barcelona Public Health Agency in Spain has shed light on the untapped potential of digital technologies for revolutionizing food safety inspections across the European Union (EU).

The study explores both the benefits and barriers associated with adopting digital environments in retail food safety inspections, providing crucial insights for EU competent authorities.

With a focus on improving inspection consistency and efficiency, the study involved a comprehensive survey distributed to competent authorities in all 27 EU Member States. A total of 88 competent authorities across 15 countries responded, offering valuable perspectives on the utilization of digital technologies in food safety inspections.

The survey revealed that an impressive 62.5 percent of the respondents reported already utilizing digital environments to some extent during inspections.

Among the key internal motivations for this shift were the standardization of documentation procedures (80 percent), ensuring comprehensive data availability for inspection preparation (69.1 percent), and eliminating duplicate work for officers during inspections (54.5 percent).

 Externally, the desire to modernize public administration (54.5 percent) and address food business operators’ (FBOs’) demands for access to inspection data and results (52.7 percent) were significant driving factors.

Authorities employing digital environments lauded the numerous benefits experienced, including improved communication and data exchange with FBOs, reduced paper consumption, data standardization, and overall modernization of public administration.

The study identified specific food safety inspection processes that were effectively conducted through digital environments.

Access to reports from past inspections was the most prevalent, closely followed by the automatic generation of digital inspection reports based on template documents.

Post-inspection processes in digital environments primarily involved storing reports in digital format and reporting annual official control and sampling data to national authorities, the European Commission, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Remarkably, the development and implementation of digital inspection environments were mostly driven by internal personnel, with some external involvement in approximately two-thirds of cases.

Officers displayed high levels of engagement, involvement, and motivation, indicating a strong readiness to embrace digital transformation. To prepare officers for this digital shift, training workshops and educational materials proved to be the most common activities.

Digital technologies drawbacks

However, the study also brought to light some of the challenges that have hindered the widespread adoption of digital environments.

Approximately 37.5 percent of competent authorities reported not using digital technologies during inspections, with the most common barriers being budget constraints (39.4 percent) and shortages in information technology personnel (33.3 percent).

Moreover, some authorities cited the coexistence of non-interoperable digital systems in public administration and the lack of internet connectivity at food premises as significant hurdles.

With the research findings in mind, the authors of the study advocate for the strategic implementation of digital technologies as decision support tools. The goal is to standardize inspection procedures, thus enhancing consistency in the delivery of official controls throughout the EU.

By embracing digitalization, competent authorities can usher in a new era of efficiency, transparency, and ultimately, safer food for consumers.

The EU’s commitment to exploring digital solutions for food safety inspections represents a progressive step towards safeguarding public health and fostering a future where cutting-edge technology complements regulatory efforts.

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