The number of food safety incidents that involved an international network more than doubled in January to March this year compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

During the first quarter of 2020, the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) was part of 38 food safety events versus only 15 from October to December 2019.

Of 25 incidents involving a biological hazard, eight were due to Salmonella, five for Listeria monocytogenes, three because of norovirus, two each down to Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, Clostridium botulinum and Bacillus cereus and one each due to Cronobacter, Shigella sonnei and an unspecified hazard.

Common food types involved
Salmonella climbed back to being the main hazard since INFOSAN started quarterly summaries in January to March 2018. The two times it has not been first, Listeria has been in prime position.

Sharing of information through INFOSAN enables members to implement risk management measures to prevent illness in their respective countries. The network is run by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).

Other issues in 2020 were undeclared allergens such as milk, peanut, egg and gluten. Physical hazards including undetermined foreign matter, glass, metal and plastic and one involving histamine.

Food categories mostly involved in incidents during 1Q 2020 were fish and other seafood, herbs and spices, legumes and pulses, milk and dairy products, nuts and oilseeds, snacks, desserts and other foods, cereals and cereal-based products, composite food, fruit products, meat products, vegetables and vegetable products, products of special nutritional use, and food for infants and small children.

Listeria and enoki mushrooms
In March, the INFOSAN secretariat was made aware by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of an outbreak of listeriosis linked to enoki mushrooms, imported from the Republic of Korea. In total, 36 cases including four deaths have been reported.

Following investigations in Canada, the INFOSAN secretariat was informed of six Listeriosis cases between 2017 and 2019 potentially related by whole genome sequencing (WGS) to the outbreak in the U.S. Food isolates from enoki mushrooms from the Republic of Korea genetically associated with the cluster of cases were collected in 2019 by authorities in Canada.

Six people in Australia are also part of this international Listeria outbreak. Illnesses were reported between October 2017 and March this year but no-one has died.

Meanwhile, INFOSAN and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will hold a workshop later this year to increase the human resources available to train members on a range of INFOSAN-related topics, online or in-person.

The hope is that understanding of the roles and responsibilities of INFOSAN members will be improved, resulting in greater participation that will enhance speed and efficiency during the response to global food safety emergencies.

Network’s five year plan
The network has also published a strategic plan covering 2020 to 2025. It has six main objectives. These include strengthening INFOSAN as the global network to detect and respond to international food safety emergencies to reduce their negative public health and trade impact, connecting food safety professionals across the world and boosting visibility of INFOSAN and identifying new funding opportunities.

Members from Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean have been the least responsive during food safety incidents, answering INFOSAN requests only 32 percent and 40 percent of the time compared to the global average of 70 percent. Members in the Pacific Island Countries are historically among the least active in INFOSAN.

There is a target to improve responsiveness of INFOSAN Emergency Contact Points to requests for information during international food safety incidents. The aim is 24 hours for acknowledgement and three days to provision of information compared to the historical average of 48 hours for acknowledgement and seven days for information.

The hope is to almost double the proportion of incidents identified because of a notification from an INFOSAN member instead of from a secondary source or the media from 26 percent to 50 percent.

INFOSAN is also looking at partnerships with the European Commission Food Fraud Network and initiatives of Europol and Interpol.

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