Lithuania is not able to verify whether food of non-animal origin is produced in compliance with EU regulations to prevent contamination with pathogens, according to a recent audit report.
DG Sante, the unit behind the European Commission’s policies on health and food safety, found non-compliances are rarely detected by official controls and enforcement is seriously affected.
The audit in September 2019 included visits to a farm producing strawberries and one for sea buckthorn, a green leafy vegetables farm, a processor of frozen berries, of green vegetables and of lettuce, and two approved sprout-producing establishments.
The aim was to assess the system of official controls in food hygiene to prevent microbiological contamination in production of food of non-animal origin (FNAO), looking at primary production, frozen products, sprouts and seeds intended for sprouting.
To try and improve, Lithuania revealed the State Food and Veterinary Service (VMVT) will verify inspections by local authorities between January and October 2020 at non-animal food production and primary production factories as well as providing training and written advice.
Lack of training and experience
The audit found the official control system has gaps related to providing instructions, technical support and staff training. This means controls cannot be implemented effectively and the system does not allow inspectors to maintain sufficient experience to perform effective controls.
There was no evidence of training related to sprouts, microbiological prevention in primary production of FNAO — especially at pre-harvest stage — and/or microbiological risk management in processing plants.
Inspectors involved in official controls on FNAO do a low number of checks per year and for most, it was the first time they performed such controls on microbiological risks at the primary production level.
Based on data from Lithuanian authorities there are 584 primary producers of FNAO. DG Sante found not all food businesses within the audit’s scope had registered so they are not under official control.
When registered, for primary producers, an inspection is foreseen after six months to a year. Primary producers of leafy green vegetables and soft berries are usually classified as low or medium risk and inspected every two or three years.
Finding and acting on non-compliance
Primary production before and during harvest is not under official control and this weakens effectiveness of checks. Documentation on official controls of primary producers and processors showed that non-compliances were not often detected and, when found, rarely followed up on site.
At growers, requirements such as workers’ hygiene, use of fertilizers, irrigation water, and facilities were addressed by inspectors without going into the field. Officers do not always look for evidence such as temperature deviation and corrective actions, cleaning of equipment and irrigation water tests.
In one example, berries were in cold storage without proper protection with possible direct product contamination but this was overlooked by the inspector and when it was raised, the situation was not immediately corrected.
During visits to processors, inspectors noticed hygienic non-compliances representing potential direct contamination of food. Problems included product on the floor that could move into a processing line, containers for edible products on the floor, dirty ceiling directly above the production line. Authorities were not systematically requesting immediate corrective actions by the food firm.
Sprout-producing establishments are high risk and inspected once a year. In two sprout-producing plants visited, approvals had been granted. However, several non-compliances were not corrected following controls in consecutive years such as specification and certificates for seeds, and sampling plan not in line with the EU requirements. Auditors said the system for sprouting establishments does not ensure non-compliances are rectified before approval is granted.
The control system for these plants does not include official guidelines, checklist and training for inspectors. So aspects of sprout legislation are overlooked by officials not familiar with or aware of EU regulations. This means official controls do not contribute enough to prevent microbiological contamination in sprouts, or limit the risk of non-compliant sprouts being put on the market.
Activities of freezing FNAO sites are classed as low risk and categorization has not been reviewed after the European Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to frozen corn. Factors such as size of plant and production volume are not taken into account for risk ranking.
Lithuanian authorities said that non-animal origin food producers of frozen fruit, vegetables, lettuce, berries, mushrooms or their mixtures have to be categorized as high risk establishments and beginning this year they have to be inspected once per year.
The National Food and Veterinary Risk Assessment Institute is the National Reference Laboratory with 67 percent of samples investigated coming from official sampling and 33 percent from companies own checks.
However, it does not have adequate capacities to perform tests for foodborne viruses on a routine basis, leading to a very limited database in risky matrices like frozen berries. If necessary, these tests see samples sent to accredited official and private labs, according to the report.
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