Ireland has launched a food safety and authenticity strategy to proactively identify and mitigate risk in the supply chain.

Implementation will focus on seven areas: communications; training; risk assessment; contingency planning; data capture, analysis and utilization; policy design; and harmonization of activities. A project team has been created for each area.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed launched his department’s strategy 2018-2020 to stakeholders in the agri-food sector and regulatory partners from government and state bodies last month.

Minister Creed said there can be no compromise on food safety or integrity of the food chain and described the plans as “ambitious”.

“We must be clear and unequivocal about this commitment to food safety and public health. And we must ensure that the outcomes of our change programme has real and substantive impact and deliver maximum value for the consumer here and abroad.”

Sector challenges
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) strategy will respond to challenges that it and the agri-food sector face in coming years such as new legislation, the objectives of Food Wise 2025, food authenticity and safety threats.

Food Wise 2025 is the overarching strategy for the agri-food sector and includes creation of 23,000 jobs.

In strategy and review documents DAFM has mentioned reduced staff levels, reorganization, and the requirement to deliver the national food control programme with an improved level of service and reduced resources. The agency has more than 600 staff directly involved in food safety and authenticity activities.

A DAFM spokeswoman told Food Safety News that the challenges facing Ireland in food safety are diverse and ever-changing.

“Examples include the increasingly complex food chain with novel processes and technologies, evolving consumer demands, globalization, climate change and environmental sustainability. DAFM ensures that available resources are appropriately deployed, based on its assessment of the level of risk in the various establishments under its control,” she said.

“While continuing its regulatory responsibilities to protect public health, the strategy seeks to further foster a culture of compliance across the agri-food sector through enhanced collaboration across government and industry. It is expected that such an approach will yield additional benefits to consumers in Ireland as well as those across Ireland’s global consumer base.”

She added impending implementation of legislation on official controls on food and feed (Regulation (EU) 2017/625) provides an added imperative for the department to examine and improve on its performance to meet the new rules and requirements.

Ireland has a programme of risk-based official controls with outcomes reported annually to the European Commission (in accordance with Regulation 882/2004) by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and DAFM.

Microbiological situation
In Ireland, there are 2,500 Campylobacter notifications per annum. In 2016, the notification rate for confirmed cases in the EU was 66/100,000 of population, while the rate for Ireland was 53/100,000 of population. Other zoonotic agents of interest are Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria monocytogenes.

An industry-wide group published a strategy last year to address campylobacteriosis with actions at all levels of the food chain, which is in the process of being implemented.

Ireland reported one of the lowest salmonellosis rates in Europe with a decreasing trend from 2008–2016 but there was an increase between 2012-2016 of Salmonella Enteritidis (ECDC, 2017).

DAFM said it was “well advanced” in implementation and use of Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) as a molecular typing tool for food safety purposes. The technology is currently used in parallel with traditional typing techniques like PCR and PFGE.

A study on food safety in Ireland for the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI) this year found the number of RASFF notifications it made decreased from 20 in 2014 to 16 in 2016.

The majority (six) related to pathogenic microorganisms and the main product category was dietetic foods, food supplements and fortified foods. The main hazard categories notified by Ireland related to aflatoxins, labelling and presence of Listeria and Salmonella.

Ireland was the originating country in 41 notifications between 2016 – 2018 of which 11 related to pathogenic microorganisms in bivalve mollusks and related products; norovirus (six), E. coli (one); shellfish poisoning (four). Other alerts were for meat products (presence of E. coli or mislabeling); fish products and milk products (Listeria monocytogenes).

The study also highlighted microbiological contamination of live bivalve mollusks, biotoxins in scallops and the lack of lab capacity for genetically modified organism analysis.

Imports and exports
In 2017, total value of Irish agri-food exports was €13.6 billion ($15.5 billion) with food and drink going to 180 countries.

Of that, €5.2 billion ($5.9 billion) was exported to the United Kingdom, with €4.2 billion ($4.8 billion) going to the EU (excluding the UK) and the same amount to markets worldwide. By product type, dairy accounted for 34 percent of the total and beef for 18 percent. For imports, the agri-food sector had a value of €8.7 billion ($10 billion).

When asked about trade with the UK after Brexit, the DAFM spokeswoman said a relationship close to the one currently in place is the ambition.

“It is clear that an outcome that imposes additional costs along the supply chain in both directions will not be in the best interests of the sectors in either jurisdiction,” she said.

“Ireland’s ambition for the current negotiations, and that of the EU, is for a trading relationship as close as possible to that currently, without compromising last December’s agreement between the parties, which precludes the possibility of a border on the island of Ireland, or the principles underlying the Single Market.”

Pamela Byrne, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) said the strategy strengthens collaboration across all stakeholders in the agri-food sector with a focus on consumer protection.

“Assuring authenticity, monitoring the food chain, detecting fraudulent and deception practices and continually developing the best food safety systems aligned to new and emerging food safety legislation, is embedded in our organization’s DNA,” she said.

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