Predictions are often a dangerous game. There is no such thing as zero risk so we can be fairly confident 2019 will bring recalls and outbreaks. We are still going to be talking about whole genome sequencing and raw milk and products made with it. We have annual reports like Operation Opson run by Europol and Interpol and the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) analysis of recalls. Food safety in the United Kingdom with Brexit and new regulation will be part of 2019 coverage.
There will also be things we haven’t seen before like the first ever World Food Safety Day on 7 June, stronger penalties in Sweden for food law violations, and results from the European Court of Auditors look at EU food safety policy. Plus, the bottom of this article lists 10 events in Europe, Africa and Asia in date order to give a taste of what is to come in 2019.
To end on an ominous note, 2013 was the year of the horse meat scandal in Europe with horse found in beef products, 2015 brought undeclared almond and peanut proteins in paprika and cumin products, rescinded recalls and the rise to prominence of mahaleb, and 2017 was fipronil in eggs starting in Europe and spreading globally. So as we head into another odd-numbered year, what was 2019 got for us?
1) First World Food Safety Day
At last. The drum has been banged since 2015 but now we have real music after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in December 2018 establishing a World Food Safety Day. The first one will be in 2019 and every 7 June will be annually marked as this day.
The process started at the FERG Symposium on the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases in Amsterdam in December 2015, when then Codex Alimentarius Commission chairperson Awilo Ochieng Pernet suggested the need for a World Food Safety Day. The idea then became a concrete proposal by Costa Rica. In 2016, the Codex Alimentarius Commission agreed to promote the plan to establish such a day. The 40th Session of the FAO Conference in July 2017 adopted a resolution in support of a World Food Safety Day and the World Health Organization expressed support in December 2017.
Putting to one side the time it took and the obvious response: “Shouldn’t every day be World Food Safety Day?” I hope this will help in some way to cut the roughly 600 million cases of foodborne illness that occur annually.
“World Food Safety Day will be a chance for everyone to take a moment to think about something we often take for granted: food safety. Thanks to the widespread efforts of Codex Members and Observers, the international community will speak with one voice on 7 June to promote awareness and inspire actions for safer food,” said Codex secretary Tom Heilandt.
2) Food safety and Brexit
The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union by the end of March 2019 following the result of a referendum in 2016. It is still not clear what type of deal, if any, will be agreed between the parties which makes possible implications for food safety almost impossible to predict. How close will the relationship between the UK and EU be? What will a trade deal look like? Will the UK be able to negotiate other trade deals, with who and from when? There is already a transition period of 21 months to get a future permanent relationship between the UK and EU in place.
There have been many voices already having a say on this and the government has repeated many times that food safety and standards will not be compromised but as the day gets closer expect these and other voices to get louder.
In December, the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain could stop the process – known as Brexit. If you are one of the people who want politicians to “get on with it” and an exit from Brexit coverage one prediction is fairly sure, it will get worse before it gets better. After all this, is it possible that 2019 may be the year of another referendum?
3) Regulating Our Future and crime unit funding
The UK Food Standards Agency is in the process of updating regulation. The agency first put plans forward about this in 2017 and Regulating Our Future (ROF) is due for completion in 2020.
The existing approach has been in place for more than 30 years and the new system will be risk-based. A digitally-enabled approach will make it easier for companies to register and this system should go live in March. Business will be urged to share more data with the regulator and FSA sees an expanded role for private assurance schemes already operating in food safety and standards.
The National Food Crime Unit was established in 2015 following the horse meat incident in 2013. Food crime causes losses to the UK food and drink industry estimated at around £11 billion ($13.9 billion) per annum — 5.4 percent of revenues).
More than £2 million ($2.5 million) of additional funding was approved for the NFCU in 2018/19 with the full requirement to move into the next phase of operations being £4 million ($5 million). The first phase was intelligence building with the second phase focusing on response to criminal threats and vulnerabilities identified. The unit will grow in size to 82 staff which is an increase of 60 people and operate from five locations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
With more funding and a bigger headcount comes the pressure to deliver results publicly. Andy Morling, head of food crime, has spoken at many industry events in the last few years, now the time is coming to turn words into action and results.
4) Whole genome sequencing (WGS) uptake
Most European countries have or are in the process of implementing whole-genome sequencing (WGS) for outbreak investigation and surveillance. Two-thirds of countries were routinely using WGS in 2017 for national surveillance of at least one human pathogen and non-user countries were planning to use WGS within three years.
The main reason for not using WGS is a lack of expertise and financial resources. Traditional molecular typing methods such as Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) or multilocus variable-number tandem-repeat analysis (MLVA) are being replaced. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a paper in 2018 on WGS for foodborne disease surveillance showing international interest in the technology.
We will hear more in 2019 with the EU project COMPARE in its final year and the continued work of the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium (SFSCC) launched in 2015 by IBM Research and Mars Inc. and with Cornell University and Bio-Rad joining since. The Global Microbial Identifier (GMI) consortium of more than 270 scientists in 55 countries is working on a system of DNA genome databases for microbial and infectious disease identification and diagnostics. The 12th GMI meeting is set for 12-14 June in Singapore.
5) Sweden tightens punishment for food law violations
From the start of 2019 the punishment for violations of the Food Act in Sweden has been tightened. This includes the penalty of imprisonment of up to two years being reintroduced. Prison sentences can be imposed when firms produce, manage or market food that can pose a danger to people’s health. The aim is to provide safer food for the consumer and contribute to fairer competition between food companies. Livsmedelsverket (the National Food Agency of Sweden) said violations can involve food labelling or hygiene routines.
Another important change is the system of penalty fee charges for less serious infringements. Of course, the acid test for any regulations like these is enforcement so we will have to wait and see what this year has in store.
6) European Court of Auditors look at food safety policy
The European Court of Auditors (ECA) audit on EU food safety policy will be one of the first things off the conveyor belt of news in 2019. Auditors are examining whether the EU’s food safety model is soundly based and keeps consumed food products safe from chemical hazards. Chemical hazards are poisonous substances that occur naturally or are added during food production or handling. Examples include cleaning agents, pesticides and certain metals.
Auditors interviewed staff at the European Commission and relevant EU agencies and consulted food industry stakeholders. They also visited the Netherlands, Italy and Slovenia. The special report on food safety was announced in February 2018 and was due to be published by the end of the year but Food Safety News understands it is now planned for mid-January.
7) EFSA BPA risk assessment
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is continuing the reassessment of Bisphenol A (BPA). While we may not publicly hear much in 2019, with the assessment expected in 2020, that does not mean nothing will be going on behind closed doors. BPA is a chemical used to manufacture plastics and resins.
EFSA has assessed its safety in food contact materials several times and most recently in 2015. This review concluded that BPA posed no health risk to consumers of any age group at current exposure levels. Despite this, the EU strengthened requirements for BPA in food contact plastics and food contact varnished or coated products with the law becoming effective in September 2018.
Studies by the Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on BPA Toxicity (CLARITY-BPA) project in the United States are now available with a final report sometime in 2019. CLARITY-BPA was designed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Toxicology Program (NTP) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
8) EU plant health rules
The European Parliament and Council adopted the Plant Health Law in 2016 but December 2019 is when the regulation becomes applicable. Regulation (EU) 2016/2031 covers protective measures against plant pests.
The rules aim to ensure safe trade and mitigate the impact of climate change on the health of crops and forests. Early detection of plant pests, action plans for eradication, surveillance rules for the import of high risk plants and rules for the certification of plant products are among new provisions. An example of a plant pest outbreak is the case of Xylella fastidiosa. It is one of the most dangerous plant bacteria, causing a variety of diseases, with huge economic impact for agriculture.
9) Operation Opson: Europol and Interpol
In April look out for the publication of findings from the latest Operation Opson. The annual operation is coordinated by Europol and Interpol and supported by customs, police and national food regulatory bodies as well as partners from the private sector.
The operation in 2018 resulted in the seizure of around 3,600 tons and 9.7 million liters of counterfeit or substandard food and beverages and more than 700 people were arrested or detained.
10) BRC Global Standard for Food Safety version 8
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard for Food Safety Issue 8 was published in August 2018 and audits will be conducted against it beginning in February 2019. The BRC Global Standard for Food Safety has more than 20,000 certificated sites in 130 countries.
The standard was developed by experts from retailer, manufacturer and foodservice organizations. It specifies the safety, quality and operational criteria that must be in place in a food manufacturing organization to fulfil legal compliance and consumer protection.
The standard emphasizes management commitment, a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-based food safety program and supporting quality management system. There is development of food defense and prevention of food fraud, with expansion of requirements for environmental monitoring of microorganisms in production facilities. All Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards must be updated at least every three years.
11) New Zealand review of raw milk regulation
The New Zealand government committed to reviewing raw milk policy in November 2018, two years after full implementation, to ensure it is working effectively. Results from this exercise are expected by the middle of 2019.
Registered farmers are required to sell raw milk directly from the farm gate or by home delivery as collection points are not allowed. All containers and point-of-sale areas must display labels that identify the health risks of raw milk.
The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) said that raw unpasteurized milk from any animal may be contaminated with bacteria including Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), Listeria and Campylobacter. Between 2009 and 2016 there were 46 outbreaks where consuming raw milk was a risk factor, according to the agency.
12) Fipronil follow-up
An overview of fact-finding missions to follow-up the 2017 fipronil incident in four member states is to be published soon. Millions of eggs were recalled after some were found to be contaminated with fipronil.
Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, made the announcement at the AGRIFISH Council meeting in December 2018.
The Commission organized these missions in October 2017 to the member states where the original contamination occurred to look at actions taken following exchanges of information on possible illegal treatment in poultry farms and the findings of non-compliant residues of fipronil in eggs.
Fipronil is an insecticide but is banned in the EU for use on animals intended for the food chain. The European Commission set a maximum residue level (MRL) for fipronil in eggs and poultry meat at 0.005 mg/kg. Twenty-six of the 28 EU member states reported the presence of fipronil in eggs and egg products, with more than 45 countries affected, including the United States, Russia, Israel and Canada.
In June 2018, tens of thousands of eggs from the Netherlands were recalled in Germany due to fipronil contamination.
Europe, Asia and Africa events scheduled in 2019
- Food Safety in the EU: Maintaining High Standards and Ensuring Transparency of Information, Jan. 29 in Brussels, Belgium
- First FAO/WHO/AU International Conference on Food Safety, Feb. 12-13 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- BRC’s Food Safety Europe, Feb. 12 in London, UK
- Global Food Safety conference (GFSI), Feb. 25-28 in Nice, France
- First GHI World Congress on Food Safety and Security, March 24-28 in Leiden, Netherlands
- International Forum on Food Safety and Trade, by FAO, WHO and WTO, April 23-24 in Geneva
- IAFP EU symposium, April 24-26 in Nantes, France
- One Health EJP annual scientific meeting, May 22-24 at Teagasc in Dublin, Ireland
- China International Food Safety and Quality Conference, Oct. 30-31 in Beijing
- RAFA 2019, Nov. 5-8 in Prague, Czech Republic
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