Limited progress has been made in Austria on improving the system to reduce microbiological contamination of food of non-animal origin (FNAO), according to DG Sante.

The unit responsible for the European Commission’s policies on health and food safety led a follow-up audit to Austria last year.

The audit from June 12 to 20, 2018 included visits to five farms producing strawberries and gooseberries, tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and leafy vegetables and two sprout producing sites.

An initial audit in 2013 found the official control system for primary production of FNAO was not risk-based and did not take into account potential risks from microbiological contamination. Nine recommendations were made and at the time of the 2018 audit, three had been fully addressed and one partly covered.

The audit team found central and regional authorities did not implement controls on microbiological risks before and during harvest so part of the production chain is not covered.

“The official controls do not cover primary production at farm level before and during harvest, leaving the majority of primary producers outside the official control regime. The controls over operators were not risk-based, except for those over sprout-producing establishments,” according to the report.

FNAO primary producers are in a system of risk categorization with ranking meaning authorities should carry out controls every ten years.

For sprouting establishments controls are around every two years depending on the compliance status of the site. The only non-compliance in 2018 was a high level of Bacillus cereus in two samples. There are no legal limits but results were interpreted as unsafe and produce was seized.

One sprout establishment did not analyze for Salmonella spp. as required by regulation. It was not noticed by the inspector and the business that a consignment of mung-beans was from a third country, and that import health-certificates would be required. Seeds were purchased from a trader in another member state.

“Shortcomings were noted in respect of the official controls over their compliance with the requirements regarding seeds for sprouting from third countries, and with the obligatory microbiological testing of seeds intended for sprouting,” according to the audit report.

Regular inspections are provided due to a private certification scheme for most primary producers of leafy vegetables and soft berries. They cover microbiological risks at primary production but do not require sampling for microbiological parameters.

A monitoring plan is prepared each year and samples are tested for E. coli, (including VTEC) Salmonella spp., molds, coagulase positive Staphylococcus, and Bacillus cereus. In 2016, 93 samples were taken at the distribution level and analyzed at AGES laboratories, 27 were non-compliant mainly for labeling. In 2017, 102 samples were taken and 20 non-compliances were found mostly related to labeling.

In 2016, the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES) examined 2,739 samples of fruit or vegetables, 41 were microbiologically non-compliant, mostly due to unsuitable or too long storage but no VTEC was detected.

Staff performing official controls are not trained regarding the reduction of microbiological risks and sampling for such testing at the primary production level and sprouting premises.

There is an official sampling system for microbiological risks at distribution level but it does not cover primary production except for sprouts.

“However, the sample instructions were not detailed, samplers did not know in most cases the nature of analyses (e.g. chemical, microbiological) and did not receive specific training, which could affect the integrity of the samples for microbiological analyses,” according to the report.

Authorities have documented procedures, instructions and checklists to enable them to perform official controls at a primary production level of FNAO after harvest.

However, the audit team noted checklists do not contain specific requirements to reduce microbiological risks at primary production level (e.g. staff hygiene during harvest, field toilets, prevention of contamination of produce by soil) and for raw material testing and traceability for sprout production.

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