A review has described how the lessons from major foodborne outbreaks have helped improve Europe’s food safety system.

The research covers significant outbreaks that occurred in the past decade and how things have changed to try and prevent repeat incidents.

In Europe, 5,175 foodborne outbreaks were recorded in 2019 with 49,463 illnesses, 3,859 hospitalizations, and 60 deaths. In the same year, EU countries posted 40 Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications on outbreaks. Overall, 14 identified Salmonella as the probable cause, 11 for Listeria monocytogenes, and seven for norovirus.

In 2011, an outbreak caused by E. coli O104:H4 contaminating Fenugreek seeds from Egypt affected almost 4,000 people in 16 countries with more than 900 cases of the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and 50 deaths. Raw fresh vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce were initially suspected as possible vehicles of the infections.

The crisis led to revised rules for the sprout sector and new legislation to enforce existing hygiene provisions for food of non-animal origin and its primary production. This included EU regulation that sprouted seeds and sprouts, placed on the market during shelf life, should not contain Salmonella and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).

Frozen corn, eggs, and berries
From 2015 to 2018, a prolonged outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections caused by the contamination of frozen corn produced in Hungary by Greenyard affected five countries in Europe as well as Australia with 54 cases and 10 deaths. Following this incident, WGS techniques began to be routinely used in support of multistate outbreak investigations at the EU level.

The outbreak prompted a revaluation of efforts to identify points of contamination and attempts to reduce the risk of microbial contamination in frozen vegetable production systems. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) developed guidelines on Listeria sampling strategies and the European Association of Fruit and Vegetable Processors (PROFEL) published hygiene guidance to control Listeria in frozen vegetables.

Between 2016 and 2020, a persistent outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis was linked to the consumption of eggs from Poland. It affected 18 countries and was associated with 1,656 infections and two deaths, making it the largest European outbreak reported so far. It was traced to a consortium of farms and packing center sites but investigators never identified the precise cause of contamination.

Frozen berries contaminated with the hepatitis A virus (HAV) were responsible for an outbreak affecting 1,500 people in 13 countries in Europe during 2013 and 2014. Traceback analysis couldn’t find a single point of contamination but common ingredients like Bulgarian blackberries and Polish redcurrants were identified.

These outbreaks enabled the enforcement of existing hygiene and food safety provisions and led to the development of new hygiene guidelines and best practices, according to the study published in the Journal of Food Protection.

They highlighted the importance of real-time data generation and sharing sequencing and tracing information quickly and the need for standardized bioinformatics for comparability of results to help foodborne detection and investigation.

Work is ongoing on a European platform to share Whole Genome Sequencing data called the One Health WGS system involving data from non-human isolates received by EFSA and from human isolates received by ECDC.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), sensor technologies, and blockchain can also provide new tools to tackle food safety issues and could improve the speed and precision of food traceability, found the study.

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