An audit in Chile has found there is no official sample system to verify compliance with European standards to control microbiological contamination in the food of non-animal origin.
For primary production, there is no risk-based system to address potential microbiological risks in produce for EU export and very little official verification of controls by processors and exporters, except the raspberry sector.
Most crops exported to the EU undergo no controls at primary production and very limited ones at the transformation level. However, risks are mitigated as processors and exporters are third-party certified against international food safety standards and receive inspections and audits from EU importers.
The audit took place in Chile from November 19 to 29, 2018. The team met with lab officials from the Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG) of the Ministry of Agriculture, visited two blueberry and raspberry farms, one oregano farm and four processors packing and freezing vegetables and berries (fresh blueberries, frozen strawberries, and raspberries, frozen and blanched asparagus).
From 2008 to 2011 there was an increase in the numbers of reported outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths associated with food of non-animal origin while there was a decrease in the figures linked to food of animal origin.
According to 2017 Eurostat data, Chile was the seventh largest exporter of fresh and frozen fruits to the EU with 620,000 tons. Around a third of Chilean fruit, exports are shipped to the EU, according to SAG.
In 2017, 1,124 outbreaks with 54 hospitalizations were registered in Chile. Fifteen outbreaks were related to fresh fruit and two caused by Shigella.
Berry farm findings
Except for raspberries, there are no official controls at the primary production level for food hygiene and microbiological risks. Authorities said for other products, they rely on private second and third-party controls to achieve microbiological safety for items exported to the EU.
Inspection reports of raspberry farms showed non-conformities at several farms. Depending on seriousness they led to approval under conditions or, in one case, to the refusal of approval. However, corrective measures were not followed-up.
“For raspberries, there is a comprehensive official control system in place covering farmers, processors, and exporters intended for EU export which includes documented follow-up/enforcement and follow-up action, and which addresses microbiological risks. However, SAG staff is not trained for GMP and HACCP on processor/exporter level,” according to the report.
The two blueberry farms were third-party certified for GAP and inspected by a third-party inspection body.
Several businesses treated strawberries and other soft berries before or during processing with chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. In one case blueberries were treated with fludioxonil before being packed for export.
“For food of non-animal origin other than raspberries, there is no risk assessment in place which would allow to identify the higher risk produce and thus to prioritize SAG or Ministry of Health controls. The authorities rely on private standards and inspections, however, there are no official measures in place to prove their effectiveness,” according to the report.
Detail on processors
All processors visited did microbiological testing of water used in the facilities, raw material and some analyzed the final product. In all cases, samples were analyzed for E. coli and Salmonella, and some for Listeria monocytogenes and foodborne viruses such as Hepatitis A and Norovirus.
Processors said they are audited by EU customers/importers several times per season. The frequency was from five (oregano) up to 50 (soft berries). Some EU clients visited and approved soft fruit producing farms delivering to the exporters.
For frozen berries, the GAP certification is not always required by EU importers, including for most blackberry and some strawberry and blueberry farmers. Primary producers for vegetables (e.g. asparagus, mushrooms) are not inspected by official or private bodies.
This means some soft-berries and vegetables are exported without official or private control steps regarding microbiological food safety to verify they are compliant with relevant EU regulation.
“For processors/exporters there is a risk-based official control system in place for the Chilean internal market, but it is not consistently implemented in respect of the rules for approval, and inspection frequencies of FBOs’ establishments which could affect the level of assurance Chile can give regarding compliance with EU food safety,” according to the report.
During the audit, there was no official routine sampling for food of non-animal origin for export to the EU. SAG stated an official microbiological monitoring program for export of fruit will start in 2019.
SAG is validating methods for microbiological analysis in export fruits (grapes, apples, pears, nectarines, plums, raspberries, cherries, blueberries) for Salmonella, Coliforms and E. coli. Sampling and official analyses started in 2019 and is planned to be fully developed by 2022.
Responding to audit findings, SAG said it is working on a risk assessment that will be ready in 2020.
The Ministry of Health will set criteria to determine the frequency of GMP inspection or programming of HACCP audits during 2019, to be implemented during 2020 in coordination with SAG.
“During 2019, the SAG will evaluate the feasibility of formalizing the relationship of private control standards with the official control systems of primary export fruit and vegetable products. Without prejudice to this, the SAG, as of 2020, will carry out verifications at the level of primary production and processing establishments, for other species than raspberry, according to the prioritization defined with the risk assessment that will be implemented.”
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