An overview report on official controls for fruit and vegetables in Europe covering a number of years has shown improvement, but areas of concern still remain.
European Union laws aim to ensure the microbiological safety of fruits and vegetables. To check these rules are followed by food businesses in primary production and processors, the authorities in all EU countries carry out official controls.
Audit reports found that, while certain shortcomings exist and persisted, progress had been made over time. Countries adapted and improved their official control systems with a greater focus on emerging microbiological risks in fruit and vegetables, and have responded to recommendations made by the EU Commission. However, there was significant room for improvement in controls on frozen soft fruits and vegetables.
An initial series of audits by DG Sante between 2013 and 2016 began after serious foodborne outbreaks in the EU were caused by food of non-animal origin (FNAO). Another round of audits started in 2018. Countries visited included Poland, Germany, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Hungary and Greece.
Growth of risk-based approach
The first focus was on official controls of food hygiene at the primary production stage of FNAO intended to be eaten raw and checking the traceability of seeds for sprouting and sprouts, applicable microbiological criteria, the approval of sprout-producing establishments, and controls of imported seeds for sprouting.
At first, numerous shortcomings were identified. Systems for primary producers were not planned to address the risk of microbiological contaminants and there were no controls related to risks of such contaminants other than over the use of irrigation water. Official samples to verify contamination were rarely taken.
Improvements were observed as the series progressed. Member states started to adapt and improve their official control systems with more focus on emerging microbiological risks of FNAO.
In the second series, the scope of audits was extended to include frozen fruits and vegetables – another food source associated with outbreaks.
The first six of these follow-up audits demonstrated that progress had been made on official controls at primary production but checks on frozen soft fruits and vegetables could be better.
Audits reviewed planning and implementation of official controls, control procedures, sampling and laboratory performance and enforcement.
Examples of areas to improve
In some nations, the scope of responsibilities for conducting official controls at farms producing FNAO was not clear, resulting in a gap in checks on producers at pre-harvest and harvest. In several audits, follow-up and enforcement actions were not considered a priority and not carried out.
Registration of farms was incomplete in about half of member states. This implied they were not part of the official control plan and could be excluded from checks for reasons that were not risk-based, contrary to EU law.
In some countries, approvals at sprout-producing sites were granted without verifying that shortcomings had been rectified and maintaining approvals was not justified based on poor hygienic conditions or recurring non-compliances not being followed-up.
In the majority of member states visited, primary production of FNAO intended to be eaten raw had been considered low risk. Consequently, the frequencies of official controls focusing on microbiological risks were low or very low. Some smaller producers were inspected less or not included in control plans at all.
The low number of sprout-producing sites causes difficulties for official controls. In most countries an official only has the opportunity to do these inspections between one to four times a year, posing problems in maintaining experience at a high level, according to the report.
Risk-based planning showed major deficiencies with official controls at freezing establishments including the lack of supervision. For sampling, weaknesses were observed in the majority of audits.
DG Sante found FNAO are rarely tested for viruses. National authorities in some member states didn’t have tools to check reliability of findings and not many analyze and get accurate results.
Despite a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to frozen corn, auditors found national authorities didn’t initially take measures to improve the system. As a result, official controls and enforcement would have not been able to help prevent further possible Listeria contaminations in frozen FNAO, or limit the risk of non-compliant products being placed on the market.
A positive was the private sector such as retailers, discount stores and supermarkets, developing their own food safety standards and control systems. This has been done through private certification systems aimed at primary production (pre-harvest and harvest) and processing, trade and sales.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)