The Belgian food safety authority has had to step in less this summer at youth camps following outbreaks of food poisoning.

The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) intervened twice in youth camps following incidents related to food poisoning in 2020, which is four times less than the three previous years.

The agency reported this was likely because of increased attention to hygiene during the coronavirus pandemic as well as support and training on good hygienic practices.

Bacillus cereus and norovirus
The first incident involved 12 ill people and Bacillus cereus was found in leftover food. The second left 14 people sick and was caused by norovirus.

In 2019, out of the hundreds of camps organized in Belgium, FASFC was called upon eight times with half of the incidents caused by norovirus.

Youth camps are generally not part of the FASFC inspection program but the agency raises awareness and trains youth organizations so summer camps are safe.

FASFC, known in French as AFSCA and Dutch as FAVV, has been carrying out awareness campaigns for young people and staff members of these camps for years. If incidents occur, agency officials go on site to try to pinpoint the origin of collective contamination, and prevent other children falling ill.

This includes doing a survey to find out what was the last meal eaten, origin of the food and water, and method of storage for foodstuffs. They also ensure good hygiene practices are known and respected. If there are any, leftover meal samples are taken and analyzed.

Outbreak figures
Meanwhile, the number of product recalls remained stable in 2019 after an increase the year before, according to FASFC’s annual report.

In 2019, 153 product recalls and 86 warnings were published on the agency’s website making a total of 239 compared to 220 in 2018. Listeria remained prominent in product recalls, with large quantities of meat products withdrawn from the market in Belgium and across Europe.

Notified outbreaks in Belgium 2016-2019

There was a major Salmonella outbreak in September 2019 that involved 203 people at the Spermalie Hotel and Tourism School in Bruges. The eggs used in preparation of tartare sauce were suspected as being the origin of contamination. Salmonella bacteria could be detected in the leftover sauce, but not in leftover eggs.

The eggs came from Spain and Spanish authorities inspected the farm concerned and analyzed eggs. They were found to be contaminated with Salmonella and the strain was the same as that found in patients.

In total, 571 outbreaks were reported and 2,457 people fell sick with 28 needing hospital treatment but no deaths were reported, according to data from Sciensano, the Belgian Institute for Health. It was only possible to identify the food vehicle in one other outbreak, besides the egg example above, and that was a Salmonella outbreak caused by milk.

While the pathogen was unknown in 555 outbreaks, Salmonella caused five with 216 sick and six admitted to hospitals, norovirus was responsible for three with 41 cases and Listeria monocytogenes two with four cases and two hospitalizations. Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter and E. coli O157 all caused one outbreak. More than 70 percent of outbreaks were linked to the Horeca, or food service, sector.

Food fraud and RASFF
The National Investigation Unit (UNE) of AFSCA is in charge of the prevention, detection and stopping fraud in the country. In 2019, UNE recorded 1,331 administrative cases compared to 711 in 2017 and 712 in 2018 including the opening of more than 700 investigations.

UNE has also worked with Dutch authorities on labelling of fruit and vegetables, slaughter of poultry and fraud in the potato sector and Bulgarian officials on meat fraud.

In 2019, 4,000 reports were made by all EU member states via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), for products likely to present a risk to humans or animals and 224 came from Belgium, down slightly from the 240 in 2018. Almost a quarter of notifications in 2019 by Belgium were due to pathogenic microorganisms.

FASFC carried out 68,684 sample tests in 2019 and 97.3 percent of them were compliant compared to 96.5 percent of more than 70,000 samples in 2018. Meat was the product with the most non-conformities followed by cheese.

The Scientific Committee of FASFC has an annual symposium and this year’s is planned for Dec. 1 on the subject of “Animals without disease: the future of the animal production chain?”

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