Most soft fruits exported from Serbia to Europe are not subject to official controls at primary production levels, according to a recently released audit report.
DG Sante, the European Commission’s unit for policy on food safety and health, found official controls to address potential microbiological risks at primary production are only partly risk based and carried out at a low frequency.
There are also no official controls, such as sampling of produce, after freezing to verify compliance with EU food safety standards, and there is little official verification of the controls of processors or exporters. However, risks are reportedly mitigated as most of them are third party certified against international food safety standards and receive inspections and audits from EU importers.
In response, Serbian authorities said a plan of official controls covering microbiological risk in primary production will be created by the end of January 2020. Officials also said new rules adopted in the first quarter of next year will specify a number of samples of berries to be taken after freezing.
Past issues and import volume
The audit in Serbia in July 2019 assessed the official control systems on microbial contamination of food of non-animal origin (FNAO) for export to the European Union.
After several outbreaks traced to products from Serbia and due to the volume of imports, DG Sante decided in 2013 to assess the systems to control microbiological contamination in raspberries for export to the EU. Four recommendations were made about deficiencies in the system, the labs and follow up of Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications.
The audit this year found the control system has improved compared to 2013, and lab issues have been addressed. But, actions taken regarding the effective functioning of the system for RASFF notifications were not effective.
The 2019 visit reviewed controls on production, freezing and export, including national legislation, the organization and operation of Serbian authorities and their controls over food businesses’ compliance with hygiene rules applied during the production of raw and frozen soft berries.
The audit team visited six farms producing raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and black and red currents, three businesses freezing, packing and exporting to the EU, and one exporter and two labs.
According to the Statistical Office Republic of Serbia in 2018, around 90,000 tons of fresh and frozen raspberries were exported to the EU, 29,000 tons of blackberries and close to 2,000 tons of blueberries.
Main compliances found
Processors considered to be at high risk are inspected every nine months, at medium risk every 12 months and at low risk every 24 months. This resulted in the inspection of roughly 60 percent of freezing and collecting sites in 2018.
The audit team examined 15 reports of previous inspections of producers. Main non-compliances that led to withdrawal of produce were positive samples for norovirus and deficiencies in hygienic production, water for handwashing not available or no analytical results for water quality.
The audit team were told that in 2017, 605 inspections were conducted at freezing companies and collectors. A total of 101 had minor non-compliances and 57 were closed until evidence was provided that the deficiencies were rectified.
In 2018 inspections were reduced due to risk assessments to 490. Altogether 40 had minor non-compliances and five were shut until deficiencies were rectified. These data suggest the number of non-compliances at freezing companies dropped significantly during the last two years.
The audit team checked 15 reports of previous inspections of freezing companies not visited. Main non-compliances that led to suspension were absence of a HACCP system, use of water not fit for purpose due to non-compliant analytical reports, and absence of registration.
Significant contamination in soft berries
Reports of samples taken by food firms for auto controls are only checked randomly by inspectors regarding formal correctness such as signatures; the lab results, scope of analysis and correctness of sampling procedures are not verified.
Processors and exporters do not need special approval to export frozen soft fruits to the EU except a general provision that they must document exports meet importing countries’ requirements. However, there are no official checks on this proof.
Official samples are mainly taken at collection points from fresh produce and results indicate significant virus contamination in soft berries. Any contamination during handling and freezing will not be detected as there is no official verification of freezing activities.
Data from one lab showed in 2017, 22 official samples of fresh raspberries were positive for norovirus, which corresponds to 7.72 percent being non-compliant samples and in 2018, five non-compliant samples were taken of soft berries. So-called non-official samples were, in 2017, in 6.25 percent and in 2018 in 5.05 percent of cases contaminated with norovirus or hepatitis A virus.
In 2018, one of the two labs visited analyzed 289 samples from food firms for norovirus and 259 for hepatitis A with no positives detected. In 2019, analysis of foodborne viruses had just started with no positive findings so far.
The audit team checked follow-up of several RASFF notifications. However, in 2017 and 2018 out of three notices two were not known by the authority, showing corrective measures taken after the previous audit were not effective. However, when notifications were responded to, official controls were performed and corrective measures introduced.
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