Salmonella in breaded chicken and ethylene oxide were two of the main incidents handled this past year by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The FSA was notified of 2,336 food and feed safety incidents in England, Northern Ireland and Wales during 2021/22. This is an 18 percent increase compared to 1,978 alerts in 2020/21 but is similar to data in pre-COVID-19 pandemic years.
The top four hazard types in 2021/22 were pathogenic microorganisms, allergens, poor and insufficient controls and pesticide residues. Meat and meat products were behind the most incidents, followed by poultry meat and dietetic foods and food supplements.
Incidents associated with pathogens made up a quarter of the total which is up compared to previous years. The rise is reportedly linked to increased surveillance following a series of Salmonella outbreaks in breaded chicken products from Poland in 2020 and 2021, which sickened more than 1,000 people across multiple years with numerous products and brands affected.
Ingredient cross-contamination, cleanliness or sanitation and ingredient hygiene controls were the main root causes in pathogen incidents. Salmonella dominated while Listeria decreased slightly.
One event involved metal and plastic contamination of powdered soft drinks from the United States. Affected products were available via online marketplaces for purchase by UK consumers.
Ethylene oxide incident
A doubling of pesticide notifications was because of a large-scale issue across the EU and the UK linked to the presence of non-permitted ethylene oxide in foods, according to the report. Thousands of products were recalled or withdrawn in the UK and Europe.
The issue started in September 2020 in sesame seeds from India and is still ongoing, spreading to locust bean gum and food supplement ingredients. The UK managed the incident through product withdrawals rather than the EU approach of published recalls.
There were 129 ethylene oxide incidents in the UK from April 2021 until March 2022. The main products affected were dietetic foods, food supplements and fortified foods, food additives and flavorings, herbs and spices, ices and desserts, and other products including noodles.
Challenges of a different approach between the UK and EU were aided by regular meetings with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and Food Standards Scotland.
There was a rise in poor and insufficient controls. This was part of a cross-agency response to manage possible food safety impacts of different border controls since EU exit for imports going through the EU and avoiding sanitary and phytosanitary checks on entry into the UK.
Incident detection and response
For allergen incidents, root cause analysis data showed labeling verification checks were the top contributor, followed by labeling declaration and procedures not followed.
A system created to help mitigate the loss of EU data identified several emerging issues where further investigation was required to determine UK risks. These included Listeria in enoki mushrooms and Salmonella in halva and tahini products from Syria which led to the removal of products from the market.
A feeder mice case study shows how FSA worked with Lithuanian authorities and the EU Commission to manage a serious outbreak of Salmonella affecting more than 1,000 people across several years, with a large impact on children. A ban was put on feeder rodents from Lithuania to prevent future cases.
A report, scheduled to be published later this year, found that consumer awareness of recalls, and their understanding of actions to take, remained low. There was also little evidence of sharing of learning from incidents across industry and regulators to improve standards.
Two forums, the Food Industry Liaison Group (FILG) and the Importers Working Group (IMPWG), include industry trade associations that meet monthly to discuss food safety matters. They played a role in handling of the ethylene oxide and Salmonella feeder mice issues.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)