There is still a need to improve communication and data sharing during global food safety emergencies, according to experts.

Fadi Naser Al-Natour, Jenny Bishop and Rachelle El Khoury presented at a health talk organized by the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) on World Food Safety Day, June 7.

Naser Al-Natour, from the Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority, covered the outbreak of monophasic Salmonella typhimurium traced to Kinder chocolate. Bishop, of the Ministry for Primary Industries in New Zealand, spoke about lead in sugar contamination and El Khoury, from INFOSAN, presented on a 2021 Salmonella outbreak linked to melon from Honduras.

Naser Al-Natour said the Ferrero Kinder outbreak was one of the main outbreaks in the past few years.

Fadi Naser Al-Natour

“We received a notification from the European Commission on April 6 and INFOSAN on April 8 so we reviewed the information and had a product recall on April 8. When you are trying to see lessons learned and understand what is going on you will find it started before April 6. The first case in the UK was reported on Jan. 7 and from that date to April 6 is a long time so what is going on? On Feb. 17 there was a report by UK authorities to ECDC about cases and after that they alerted RASFF,” he said.

“In this case, we have information from the UK about cases in January and we did not get this up to international level until March. That means months of people getting sick. International communication must be enhanced. If we get the information before April we can recall earlier and stop cases. If you go back further you find the start was in December in Belgium in the factory. Even the food safety authority in Belgium only became aware of this at the beginning of April.

“There is a need to communicate better and have more transparency. We need timely and complete information. For us, when we are importing the product we cannot rely only on end product testing, it is not enough. You will find the identified cases in Europe but the product distribution is much more, so what’s the problem? It’s in the diagnostic capacity. We have an iceberg and in some countries we will not be able to track cases and do the investigation.”

Lead in sugar
Bishop said a sugar manufacturer reported an increased level of lead in November this past year.

“New Zealand has one main supplier of sugar and it is a significant event as it impacted every food business. When we were informed about this, the first question was where did the lead come from? We came to the realization that the sugar was contaminated during shipment. Unfortunately the ship had previously transported mining compounds and inadequate cleaning between consignments meant the sugar was contaminated,” she said.

Jenny Bishop

“We were seeing 1 part per million in raw sugar, 0.16 in brown sugar and it was used in a yeast product so we were getting 6 parts per million. We’ve been working hard to reduce levels of lead in food so this was a major concern as it was a commodity used in a number of foods.”

For managing contaminants in sugar, New Zealand uses the “As Low as Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) principle.

“Following a risk assessment we came to a conclusion that product at 0.1 or above we would be recalling and below 0.1 we would accept for a short period. We worked with manufacturers who had used the sugar as an ingredient and modeled the final level of lead contamination to see where they sat in regard to those action levels. This was just before Christmas so it did lead to shortages of brown sugar. We’ve had to establish ongoing levels of 0.6 parts per million,” said Bishop.

“The first international player was where the sugar was grown and we were quickly able to eliminate them as being the source of the lead. The next international player was where the ship was flagged and we informed them of the contamination. We didn’t hear back from this country. While the manufacturer had procedures in place to do testing prior to the sugar being processed, for some reason that was fast-tracked and did not allow the process to make sure contamination did not occur. There was also an accountability of the captain to sign off on cleaning procedures prior to the product being unloaded in New Zealand and for some reason that did not work. We had exported the sugar to six countries and we were able to communicate to them on the day of the recall.”

Salmonella melon outbreak
El Khoury gave the INFOSAN perspective on a Salmonella braenderup outbreak.

“When we were notified of the incident the number of cases in the UK was 73. On May 20, the number of countries was 13 and cases had reached more than 200 and the source of the outbreak was unknown but suspected to be fresh produce,” she said.

“We published a summary on our INFOSAN community website and asked members in involved countries to add additional information that could help in identifying the source of this outbreak. The UK shared the genome sequence of the isolated strain. Information from case questionnaires in the UK indicated the possible source could be linked to Galia melons. Sweden confirmed that melons were being investigated as the source of the outbreak. Now we have two countries investigating the same source.

“Investigations in the UK confirmed distribution of Galia melons from February to May, which was the timeframe of cases, from Honduras, Brazil or Costa Rica. INFOSAN informed these countries of the situation and asked for further information. All three countries said no cases of Salmonella braenderup had been registered, however investigations were ongoing.”

By May 30, melons were suspected as the outbreak source. More than 300 cases from 16 countries were involved. Testing in England showed two Salmonella positives in Galia melons from Honduras that matched the outbreak strain.

INFOSAN informed Honduras of this finding and asked for distribution details, said El Khoury.

“Honduras provided INFOSAN with the distribution list of the Galia melons. They also confirmed a positive sample of Salmonella braenderup that matched the outbreak strain was detected on the surface of a washing tank in one of the facilities where Galia melons were packed.”

El Khoury added the main messages from the incident were outbreaks affecting one country could quickly develop and become of international concern and the role of INFOSAN in information sharing and communication between countries.

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