Official food safety controls in Turkey can ensure that food of non-animal origin intended for export to the European Union meet requirements for primary production and processing, according to a report.

The Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) audit looked at the systems in place to control microbiological contamination in food of non-animal origin (FNAO) such as fresh or frozen soft fruits and herbs and spices.

The audit was due to a large outbreak in Europe in 2011, the scale of Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications regarding FNAO originating in Turkey and the volume of imports from the country.

Turkey was the top country of origin for food recalls and notifications for the third consecutive quarter with 74 notices, according to an EU second quarter index by Stericycle.

Last year, Turkey exported 13,880 tons of herbs and spices — fresh and dried — to the EU and 11,364 tons of fresh and frozen strawberries.

FNAO has the potential to be associated with large outbreaks, as seen in 2011 when Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O104:H4 occurred in Germany. About 4,000 people fell ill and more than 50 died.

From 2008 to 2011 there was an increase in reported outbreaks, cases of foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths associated with FNAO. The increase occurred while there was a decrease in the same figures associated with food of animal origin.

The audit in Turkey from April 16 to 26 included the National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for microbiological analysis, and two provincial labs. The report found the labs, engaged in official controls, are capable of carrying out microbiological analysis with reliable and consistent results.

The audit team also visited five main exporting enterprises for strawberries, pine nuts and herbs and spices and four farms producing strawberries or oregano. Hygiene practices at those companies were generally in line with the relevant EU requirements. FNAO imported into the EU must comply with the relevant requirements in Regulation (EC) No. 852/2004.

In Turkey, 6,690 staff are responsible for food safety issues. Of those, 3,900 are focused on phytosanitary issues and 1,300 are working on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs).

Turkey GAPs include requirements on the reduction of microbiological risks such as regular irrigation water analysis, availability of field toilets and handwashing facilities, and personal hygiene requirements.

“The competent authority has a structure, organization, powers, staff and resources which can adequately support the official control system covering the production chain of FNAO to be exported to the EU. These should allow [it] to provide — and where necessary enforce — the requisite guarantees as regards compliance with the relevant EU requirements,” according to the audit report.

“Microbiological food safety at primary production is addressed via a good agricultural practices inspection and certification system. At processing official controls of FNAO are in place. The competent authorities of Turkey are aware of the requirements of EU legislation on food of non-animal origin.”

Follow-up of RASFF notifications was checked at two exporters of spices and one exporter of pine kernels.

One spice company exports 350 tons and the other exports about 1,500 tons annually to the EU. The auditors found that consignments could be traced back to the producers and follow-up samples were compliant.

The pine kernel exporter processed 250 tons annually for export to the EU. The company said raw material was directly purchased from producers. Follow-up investigations of the competent authority identified no deficiencies in the firm’s hygiene system.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were analyzed for the presence of Salmonella spp. and E. coli. Officials checked 149 samples in 2016, finding eight non-compliances. In 2017 they checked 203 samples, finding three non-compliances.

For dried spices, 264 samples were taken in 2016 and 310 in 2017. The analytical scope covered Salmonella spp., Staphylococcus and Bacillus aureus. In 2016 officials found eight non-compliances. In 2017 nine non-compliances were detected.

There are 41 official and 99 private laboratories authorized by GDFC for microbiological analysis. A lab in Ankara is designated as national reference laboratory (NRL) for microbiological analysis.

The analytical scope of the labs for FNAO includes bacteria such as Salmonella spp., E. coli and Listeria. At the time of the audit, validation for the accreditation of a method for norovirus in strawberries and one for Hepatitis A in soft fresh fruits and vegetables with green leaves was in progress.

Official controls are performed at food business operations at a minimum of once a year. Exporters to the EU need to register, with approval being renewed each year.

Depending on the nature of any deficiency, food businesses are given a deadline for corrective action — usually 10 days are given — and the applicable authority does a follow-up inspection to confirm that the problem has been corrected.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)