This year saw the first World Food Safety Day, a large Listeria outbreak in Spain, and another infant formula Salmonella outbreak.

Below is a selection of some international food safety stories covered in 2019.

South Africa Listeria outbreak
I want to start with this. Yes, I know it happened in 2017 and 2018 but throughout this year Food Safety News has been publishing articles to help ensure that the public’s voice is heard. It is too easy to become disconnected from these personal stories when we see figures such as 1,060 cases confirmed and 216 people dead. The largest ever reported outbreak of listeriosis was traced to a ready-to-eat (RTE) processed meat product, called polony, made at a plant in Polokwane run by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands.

I went to Johannesburg, South Africa, in February to interview some of the people affected. It is the sort of thing that stays with you. Emotions range from feeling sorry for them, to admiring their strength and anger that such a large outbreak could happen. The holidays are a time for family and being thankful for what we have. I know I will be taking a minute to think about people who lost someone after eating food.

First World Food Safety Day and other international efforts
What did you do to mark the first World Food Safety Day on June 7 this year? Hopefully, you were not one of the 44 people that fall sick every minute from eating contaminated food.

The event is planned to be an annual observance supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The Codex Alimentarius Commission first raised the idea in 2016.

In February there was the first FAO/WHO/African Union international food safety conference in Addis Ababa and in April the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade was held at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

I attended the latter, it was interesting and good to see the subject on the agenda with people from across the world attending, but it was lacking in terms of concrete actions on goals and targets to reduce the foodborne illness disease burden. Fingers crossed for 2020.

Spanish Listeria outbreak
The listeriosis outbreak in Spain was the biggest in national history and caused more than 200 people to fall ill. Three people died. The outbreak from “La Mecha” brand chilled roasted pork meat produced by Magrudis also caused five abortions.

It started in mid-August and was declared over in October. French authorities notified a confirmed case in an English citizen, diagnosed in France and with a history of consuming cold pork in Seville.

Last month, six arrests were made as the Spanish Civil Guard and Europol found individuals were aware since December 2018 that some food products contained Listeria, but they did not inform authorities and continued to sell them.

Facua, a consumer action group, is representing some of the people affected in the outbreak as they try to claim compensation. The city of Seville is scheduled to host an International Symposium on Listeria on Jan. 23-24, 2020. It will address issues such as food safety, epidemiological surveillance, clinical management and healthcare organization as well as microbiological diagnosis, molecular identification and typing.

The cost of getting it wrong
There are two points I want to raise about two outbreaks in Norway linked to rakfisk or raw fermented trout. The first involved seasonal products that can be traditional items and as they are not part of normal behavior can pose an additional risk as they are not stored, handled or cooked correctly – such as Chinese fondue often linked to Campylobacter infections in Switzerland or norovirus in oysters at this time of year.

The second is how two companies behind different outbreaks in Norway linked to rakfisk have both recently gone bankrupt. Early in 2019, a Listeria outbreak was linked to Slidre Ørretsenter products and a case of botulism to items from Torpet Fiskeoppdrettsanlegg AS. While the reason for the former’s bankruptcy was outbreak-related it is not certain for the second company.

Another example is the death of six people from Listeria infections after eating chicken sandwiches in hospitals in England. Sandwich producer the Good Food Chain had to go into liquidation.

The outbreak strain was found in meat produced by North Country Cooked Meats. The firm and their distributor North Country Quality Foods went into liquidation in late July and both companies ceased trading. It goes to show you can do a lot right for a long time and all it can take is one thing to go wrong once.

Salmonella Enteritidis in Australia
While common in Europe and the U.S., Salmonella Enteritidis is rare in Australia but an outbreak traced to eggs led to at least 235 infections in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania from May 2018 to May 2019. A number of products were recalled.

The outbreak strain was detected on several farms in New South Wales and one in Victoria. It is not clear how the strain arrived in the country.

The Queensland egg industry recently boosted its biosecurity, hygiene and product quality processes to minimize the risk of it becoming more common in the country. Australian Eggs said responding to the Salmonella outbreak had been a learning experience for government and industry.

Another infant formula Salmonella outbreak
From late 2018 to early 2019 there was another Salmonella outbreak from infant formula. The Salmonella Poona outbreak from rice-based infant formula occurred between August 2018 and February 2019 with 32 confirmed cases. Thirty of these were in France and one each in Belgium and Luxembourg in infants aged 2 months to 28 months old.

Products were made at the Industrias Lacteas Asturianas SA (ILAS) factory in Anleo, Spain, and marketed by Sodilac under the Modilac brand in France. The plant is the same one linked in 2010 and 2011 to an outbreak of Salmonella Poona in Spain that sickened almost 300 infants who drank powdered milk. Strains in the two outbreaks were genetically related.

All tests on samples of implicated batches were negative for Salmonella Poona. The pathogen had not been detected in the production environment of ILAS or any other product dehydrated in the same drying tower since 2017.

In 2017, Lactalis infant formula was linked to a Salmonella Agona outbreak that sickened 38 babies in France, two in Spain and one in Greece. The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) has put forward ideas to help improve the control of microbiological hazards in powdered infant formula.

Germany and Netherlands Listeria outbreaks
Two different Listeria outbreaks were reported recently, one from Germany and the other in the Netherlands. They were both linked to meat products and involved infections from years ago. With whole genome sequencing this is something we can expect to see more of in the future.

In the German outbreak, 37 illnesses from 2014 were linked to meat produced by Wilke Waldecker Fleisch- und Wurstwaren company near Hesse.

One infection was recorded in 2014, three in 2016, four in 2017, 21 in 2018 and eight this year. Three people are thought to have died.

In the Netherlands, 21 people were infected with Listeria monocytogenes in the Netherlands and Belgium. One person fell sick in October 2017, eight in 2018 and 12 in 2019. Three people died, all cases were hospitalized and one woman had a miscarriage.

Multiple sliced ready-to-eat (RTE) meat products from different suppliers produced between 2017 and 2019 by Offerman, a Dutch manufacturing company and subsidiary of Ter Beke, were contaminated with Listeria that matched the outbreak strain.

Potential for global outbreaks
Ending on a cheery or daunting note, depending on which way you look at it as in one respect we have been lucky this year. Globalization means food is sent across the world,(and occasionally sent back when a recall is required. While borders and trade may be challenging on a practical level it doesn’t bother microorganisms.

Whether it is because of low levels of contamination, small product quantities, product not getting to market, illnesses not being picked up, or sheer luck there have been a number of outbreaks this year involving international distribution. Thankfully there have not been global infection events.

The Listeria outbreak referenced above made people sick in the Netherlands and Belgium but distribution included at least another seven countries. For the German outbreak, about 30 nations were involved.

An E. coli O26 outbreak only affected France but the contaminated raw cow’s milk cheese was sent to 30 other countries including the U.S. and Canada. A similar situation for another type of cheese called Coulommiers from France that caused two Listeria illnesses in that country. However, it was sent to more than 30 countries including the U.S. with no other reported illnesses.

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