The number of foodborne outbreaks and people sick declined for the second year in a row in Finland, according to a new report.

In total, 34 foodborne outbreaks were recorded this past year compared to 50 in 2019 and 73 in 2018. A total of 543 people became ill, versus 919 in 2019 and 1,475 in 2018.

A decrease in workplace and restaurant meals related to COVID-19 restrictions could explain this fall. It is also likely that focusing on hand hygiene during the pandemic reduced norovirus epidemics, said the report published by Ruokavirasto (the Finnish Food Authority).

The most common cause of food poisoning was norovirus. The virus was still the main pathogen identified in 10 outbreaks with 104 patients. In half of these incidents, an infected worker was a contributing factor.

Example outbreaks
In 2020, two investigations into Listeria epidemics, which had affected people across Finland over several years, were completed. The food source was suspected to be meat products from different establishments. Finland reported a record 93 Listeria infections this past year. Ten different listeriosis clusters were investigated.

Clostridium perfringens was behind one medium-sized outbreak and Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus both caused one small one.

Salmonella caused three small outbreaks. In one, the Salmonella strain that caused eight infections was found in the chopped zucchini served to patients through a central kitchen. In another, samples from patients were similar to those part of an international epidemic in 2018 linked to fresh cucumbers. It could not be determined if cucumbers from the same farm were responsible.

Three small Campylobacter epidemics and one small E. coli outbreak were recorded. The cause could not be identified for 12 outbreaks.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant remote inspections were introduced and controls were more risk-based, according to the report.

Food recalls rise
Finland submitted 70 reports to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) about issues in food or food contact materials detected in the country. This is 34 more than the previous year. There were 149 RASFF reports addressed to Finland, which was up more than 80 percent. The main reason for this was ethylene oxide residues found in Indian sesame seeds.

The number of food recalls grew for the fifth year in a row from 200 to 267 in 2020. In total, 45 recalls each were for ethylene oxide residues and microbiological reasons. Fourteen were because of Salmonella, mostly in meat imported from Europe, and seven were because of Listeria. There were 38 allergen recalls, including 14 related to milk. Pesticide residues caused 36 recalls.

The Finnish National Anaphylaxis Registry recorded 47 confirmed severe allergic reactions caused by food in 2020 compared to 49 in 2019.

During 2020, Finland submitted 16 reports to the European Commission’s administrative assistance system. Three related to an EU project on claims about coronavirus on food. Finland also responded to 10 reports. Through the AAC-FF system for food fraud, Finland made requests for assistance to eight member states in seven cases to help resolve cases. Five of them related to Europol and Interpol’s Operation Opson.

The fight against crime in the food chain was included for the first time in the national strategy and action plan for combating economic crime.

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