The Codex Committee on Food Hygiene met in Cleveland, Ohio earlier this month to talk about food allergen management, biological foodborne outbreaks and guidelines to control E. coli.

Codex Alimentarius is a collection of standards, guidelines and codes of practice adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which was established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Attendees discussed a draft code of practice on food allergen management, revising the General Principles of Food Hygiene (GPFH) and its HACCP annex, proposed draft guidance to manage biological foodborne outbreaks, and draft guidelines to control Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) in beef, raw milk and cheese produced from raw milk, leafy greens and sprouts.

Food hygiene revision
Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban, chief scientist at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) chaired the session, which was attended by 59 member countries, one member organization and 15 observer groups.

Revision of the GPFH were called “the most important item of the session”, by Udo Wiemer from Germany. In some countries the Codex text forms the basis of national legislation. For example, in Indonesia the GPFH are adopted to be Indonesian national standards and used as a reference by government agencies.

The update has taken several years, according to Jenny Scott, senior advisor in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and co-chair of the online working group developing the revisions.

“We have learned a lot about HACCP implementation and the importance of good hygienic practices in preventing foodborne outbreaks in the last 15 to 20 years; it is critical that this document reflect the current knowledge about food safety,” she said.

Allergens on the agenda
Food allergen controls involve labeling to ensure they are accurately identified and good hygiene practices (GHPs) to prevent transfer of an allergen from one food to another that does not contain it.

Scott said roughly 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of children in the U.S. are estimated to have food allergies.

“Food allergies are an increasing food safety issue globally, resulting in many food recalls, approximately a third of food recalls in the U.S., as well as a number of deaths, every year. The U.S. recognized that allergens pose a significant hazard to food-allergic consumers and included food allergen controls in its 2015 preventive controls requirements for food safety. With increasingly global markets for food, it is crucial to have internationally developed guidance on best practices to ensure an understanding of how to manage food allergens.”

Use of precautionary allergen labeling (PAL) is an issue the country is struggling with, said Scott.

“Many manufacturers have turned to using PAL including the expression “may contain X” on the label to advise consumers that such transfer may have occurred. Unfortunately, this practice, which seems to be growing, limits choices for food-allergic individuals and it results in some manufacturers using PAL instead of GHPs to minimize allergen cross-contact. Guidance on the controls for food allergens is important in the U.S. because of our new preventive controls requirements to protect public health and our desire to reduce allergen-related recalls.”

Future work
Dr. Mindy Brashears, deputy Under Secretary for food safety at the USDA, said that with food safety policies being constantly updated, such meetings were important.

“We have all seen in our respective nations how allergens, HACCP implementation, biological outbreaks and STEC testing can impact food safety and prevent foodborne illness. We all represent a multi-talented group of diverse and talented experts, but this is not enough. Pathogens are evolving and technology is advancing,” she said in a welcome address to delegates.

The guidance to manage biological foodborne outbreaks will next be discussed at the Codex Alimentarius Commission meeting in Rome, Italy in July 2020. Development of guidelines to control STEC in certain foods could take up to five years.

This year, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Meeting on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) has published meeting reports on source attributions of STEC, and safety and quality of water used in food production and processing with another document on foodborne antimicrobial resistance due anytime.

Three meetings covered methodologies for microbiological risk assessment, Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus in seafood, and microbiological quality of water used in production and processing of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Scheduled meetings for 2020 are on STEC control and intervention, allergens and Listeria monocytogenes to provide updated synthesis of attribution and methods of analysis.

Meeting topics for 2021 could include water used in food production; microbiological safety of fresh fruits and vegetables; and follow-up on Listeria monocytogenes and allergens. A meeting on microbiological risk assessment of STEC in sprouts could happen in 2022.

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