The coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and resource issues severely challenged the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) in 2020, according to the agency’s annual report.

Food inspections, sampling and enforcement orders all declined but food and allergen alerts rose compared to 2019.

Inspectors served businesses with 31 closure orders, two improvement orders and nine prohibition orders, and took five prosecutions against firms in Ireland.

The 42 enforcement orders was a 67 percent decrease versus the 125 served in 2019, reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the food service sector. However, the number of prosecutions did go up from two to five.

Types of issues which led to action are poor cleaning and sanitation of premises; poor personal hygiene; lack of running water; inadequate handwashing facilities; incorrect food storage; lack of, or an ineffective, pest control program; structural problems from a lack of ongoing maintenance; and lack of, or an inadequate, food safety management system.

The pandemic and associated restrictions also affected the official control system. It was not possible to inspect some businesses with vulnerable consumers or residents, such as nursing homes.

Brexit preparations, particularly for enhanced import controls at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort, presented practical challenges in delivering normal levels of official controls.

Reduced resources may impact public health
Many HSE environmental health officers were diverted to contact-tracing work to support pandemic controls. A number of food microbiology labs tested samples for the COVID-19 virus, reducing their capacity for official food controls. One HSE lab had its accreditation suspended due to the reduction in food sampling as a result of the pandemic.

Service contracts and relationships with other agencies help the FSAI prioritize its limited resources in areas of highest risk to the consumer. However, any further reduction will “seriously challenge” the ability to protect public health. This was particularly evident in 2020, and in funding discussions with the local authority veterinary service before an agreement on a 2021 budget was reached, according to the report.

During 2020, funding provided by FSAI for local authorities to do official controls was less than the amount requested. The FSAI was unable to fund recruitment for those with staff vacancies.

In 2020, 50,044 food businesses were under the supervision of agencies that have service contracts with the FSAI. This is a small increase from 2019. Of the registered businesses, almost 92 percent are inspected by the HSE; 6 percent by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority; 2 percent by DAFM; and 1 percent by local authorities.

There was a decline from 2015 to 2020 in inspections from almost 58,500 to nearly 33,500. In 2020, 50,261 samples were taken, a decrease of 11.4 percent compared with 2019.

Food alerts up but complaints down
During 2020, the authority issued 112 food and 55 allergen alerts, a 56 percent increase over 2019. It also dealt with 661 food incidents compared to 679 in 2019. In total, 159 risk assessments were carried out, including 108 in the chemical safety area.

The number of complaints from consumers about food or food premises, labeling, and allergens was lower than previous years at 2,272 compared to 3,460 in 2019. A third of complaints related to unfit food and 30 percent to poor hygiene standards. The reduction reflects the impact of the pandemic, as many food service businesses were temporarily closed for periods throughout the year.

Shellfish sampling detected saxitoxin (the toxin associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning) in a production area in the southwest of Ireland. It was found in an area that had no previous such issues. It was closed to commercial harvesting when recorded results breached the levels in legislation. Analysis of samples showed the toxin peaked at over three times the regulatory limit.

During 2020, FSAI officers helped in 95 investigations to determine the nature and extent of non-compliance with food law and related food fraud offences. In excess of 24 tons of foods of animal and non-animal origin were taken off the market as a result of these investigations.

Ireland published 11 cases in the EU Commission’s Administrative Assistance and Cooperation/Food Fraud Network system relating to meat, alcohol and food supplements claiming to treat, cure and/or prevent COVID-19 infection and processed 25 notifications.

Seizures in the Europol and Interpol Opson IX included food of animal origin such as meat and dairy, as well as bottled water, and counterfeit alcohol.

In 2020, the RASFF dealt with 3,862 notifications with 58 notified by Ireland. There were 27 notifications for food which had originated in the country while 216 were related to items distributed in Ireland.

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