The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on many areas, including fewer samples being taken and a decline in most foodborne pathogens, according to an annual report from Food Standards Scotland (FSS).

The agency’s report for the year ended March 31, 2021, mentions sampling, levels of five foodborne pathogens, enforcement and food fraud.

The year was described by Ross Finnie, FSS chair, and Geoff Ogle, chief executive, as the “perfect storm” with the UK leaving the European Union and the ongoing pandemic.

Coronavirus lockdown restrictions meant a sharp drop in samples submitted to labs with 150 samples per month versus 600 monthly pre-COVID. This impacted labs with private work being their key income and one public analyst lab was considering withdrawing from testing official control samples.

During 2020-21, there was a large reduction of 72 percent in the number of samples taken compared with the previous year. Of 853 microbial samples, 90 were unsatisfactory, while 105 of 763 chemical samples had violations and six of 156 were non-compliant because of substitution.

Overall, 12.1 percent of 1,616 samples tested by local authorities for food safety were unsatisfactory compared to 14.3 percent of 6,267 in 2019-20.

Most pathogens down but Listeria rises
Public Health Scotland data shows reported cases of Campylobacter were 5,254 in 2020-21 compared to 6,145 in 2019-20. Salmonella declined from 737 to 317 and E. coli O157 from 141 to 110. There were only 46 reported cases of norovirus compared to 764 in 2019-20. However, Listeria infections went up from six to 18.

The overall decline may reflect under reporting because of restrictions on GP appointments and people not seeking treatment for mild cases of vomiting and diarrhea during the pandemic. However, there may be a true reduction in illness because of restrictions on overseas travel, dining out and social interactions, and improvements in hand hygiene, according to the report.

The Scottish Salmonella Reference Laboratory is sequencing about 500 samples from veterinary and food isolates with work expected to be completed in summer 2022. Results of the study will be used to support risk assessment.

In 2020-21, of 2,056 tests from inshore locations, 161 samples breached the permitted levels for lipophilic toxins. One of 963 samples was above the maximum limit for amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) toxins. Eleven of 1,276 samples breached top levels for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins.

Brexit impacted heavily on the food sector and exporting goods to Europe and elsewhere. There were challenges around the export health certification (EHC) process but it has now improved, said officials.

Incidents and enforcement
Incidents in Scotland dealt with by FSS that were microbiological, biotoxin and allergen food safety related were at 33 out of 94 compared to 87 of 98 in 2019-20. Of the 94 incidents, 17 were led by the Food Standards Agency but involved Scottish contribution.

In April 2020, all non-urgent inspections such as routine unannounced inspections in standalone cutting plants and audits were stopped because of the pandemic.

Formal enforcement notices issued to FSS-approved establishments dropped to 15 from 37 in 2019-20. A total of 91 written warnings were issued to meat businesses compared to 107 in 2019-20.

Three of 94 incidents related to food fraud versus two of 52 in 2019-20. In total, 201 of 1,772 samples tested by local authorities for food authenticity were recorded as unsatisfactory compared to 895 of 6,267 samples in 2019-20.

FSS has also recently published guidance on using alternative methods for the disinfection of tools. It is intended for slaughterhouses, approved game handling establishments and cutting plants.

It is the responsibility of food firms to provide information on the method, tools that will be disinfected, the validation data, verification controls post-implementation and the standard operating procedure (SOP) for the use of an alternative method equivalent to the use of water above 82 degrees C (179 degrees F).

Finally, a revised Wild Game Guide has guidance for the Scottish wild game sector, as well as enforcement officers, on the food hygiene legal requirements that apply to the hunting, processing and supply of wild game into the food chain.

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