An international food safety network was involved in double the number of incidents from July to September compared to the previous quarter.

The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), was part of 32 food safety events versus 16 from April to June. These events covered 141 WHO member states compared to 32 in the previous quarter.

Peter K. Ben Embarek, INFOSAN management, department of food safety and zoonoses at WHO, told Food Safety News that the rise was mostly due to one incident.

“The increase of countries involved can largely be attributed to the outbreak of listeriosis linked to frozen vegetables from Hungary that were subsequently distributed to 120+ countries, an event in which INFOSAN played a large role in facilitating information exchange between exporting and recipient countries,” he said.

“The number of events INFOSAN manages does not follow specific patterns. We have indeed seen a larger than a usual number of events during the first half of 2018 but without any specific reason identified yet.”

The INFOSAN Secretariat worked with the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and its own members in exporting countries to identify and share details with recipient countries.

INFOSAN said the outbreak served as a reminder to consumers that frozen raw vegetables should be cooked or heat-treated properly before consumption. Greenyard ran the frozen vegetable factory linked to the Listeria outbreak that affected 54 people in six countries, killing 10 of them. Production has since restarted.

There were 19 events involving a biological hazard:

  • six with a physical hazard that was metal (four times) and glass (twice)
  • four involving a chemical hazard that was iodine (twice), boron and histamine (once each)
  • two involving an unknown hazard, and
  • one for an undeclared shellfish allergen.

Biological hazards in Q3 were eight notices for Salmonella and one each for Anisakis, Bacillus cereus, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, Cronobacter sakazakii, Cyclospora cayetanensis, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus aureus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

Ben Embarek said biological hazards were a mixture of outbreaks and events where there was contamination of a food product internationally distributed and that posed a hazard to public health.

“In general, INFOSAN will become involved in an event when there is either a foodborne outbreak involving more than one country or happening in one country and linked to a contaminated food that has been internationally distributed, or in an event where contaminated food that could cause a public health risk has entered international trade and needs to be recalled.”

Categories most common in the 32 events were herbs, spices and condiments as well as snacks, desserts and other foods (both six); fish and other seafood as well as milk and dairy products (both five); bottled drinking water, foods for infants and small children and vegetables and vegetable products (all twice), cereals and cereal-based products, fruit and fruit products as well as nuts and oilseeds (all once). In one case the food category was unknown.

“Salmonella has frequently been the most common pathogen involved in INFOSAN events for a number of years, this is a continuing trend. We manage on average about one event per year involving herbs, spices, and condiments. It is too early to be able to explain the current increase,” added Ben Embarek.

Most INFOSAN activities happen within a closed environment, so from the outside, it is not clear what the network does and level of activity. INFOSAN quarterly summaries highlight what it is doing on a day-to-day basis to external audiences and raise awareness about the importance of international aspects of food safety events. They are aimed at INFOSAN members and international organizations, the public, government agencies, and academia.

In July, the INFOSAN Secretariat attended the 41st Codex Alimentarius Commission meeting in Rome to host a side event. The role of the network in the Listeria outbreak in South Africa linked to ready-to-eat meat and Salmonella outbreak traced to Lactalis infant formula made in France was discussed.

In the same month, a workshop about the creation of an Arab Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (ARASFF), developed under the Arab Food Safety Initiative for Trade Facilitation (SAFE) was held in Tunis, Tunisia. Twenty-five participants from 13 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa attended to discuss the future of ARASFF and the interface it will have with INFOSAN.

“Regional networks can serve to strengthen INFOSAN globally in several ways, including as important sources of food safety intelligence. However, we need to ensure complementarity of such systems and avoid the creation of parallel communication tracks, especially during food safety emergencies,” added INFOSAN.

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